By Rabbi Elie Mischel
A wounded veteran of the US army who fought in World War II, my grandfather, Julius Mischel, was overjoyed to get married and start a family. But when he moved to Queens, New York, he was disturbed by the local Jewish community’s attitude towards religion. The great majority only rarely attended synagogue services, and only a small percentage of Jewish families provided their children with any sort of Jewish education. How would the American Jewish community survive?
Upset by what he saw, he wrote a short manifesto entitled “Back to the Synagogue,” calling his friends and neighbors to join him and rededicate themselves to Jewish life. Though he himself was not given a Jewish education, my grandfather understood that he had to “up his religious game” if he wanted his own children to grow up to become proud Jews who believed in God and the Bible. And so he brought his sons to the synagogue every week on the Sabbath, and ensured that they attended Hebrew school several times each week.
Tragically, my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack at the very young age of 42. The father of young children, he died without knowing the religious path his children would one day choose. I can only imagine the anxiety and doubt he must have experienced in his final hours, as he realized he would not be there to guide them. As he left this world, he did not know if he had succeeded in leading his children down a holy path.
My grandfather couldn’t have known that 54 years after his death, he would have dozens of great grandchildren living according to the teachings of the Bible in the Holy Land. He couldn’t have known that two of his grandsons would become Orthodox rabbis, and that his granddaughters would become courageous settlers in Judea and Samaria. He saw none of this come to fruition – but he was the one who planted the seeds.
This, I believe, is also the legacy of Samson.
Samson was a leader unlike any ever seen before or since. He possessed superhuman strength and extraordinary potential, but also boundless desires. He single handedly tortured the evil Philistines who oppressed the people of Israel, killing many of their soldiers. But despite his awesome strength, he was overcome by his temptations, betrayed by Delilah and captured by the Philistines, who gouged out his eyes and made him a slave:
“The Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes. They brought him down to Azza and shackled him in bronze fetters, and he became a mill slave in the prison… Now the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to their god Dagon and to make merry. They chanted, ‘Our god has delivered into our hands our enemy Samson.’” (Judges 16:21, 23)
A life that began so promisingly seemed destined to end in sadness and humiliation. Blind and humbled, Samson cried out to God:
“‘Let me die with the Philistines!’” and he pulled with all his might. The temple came crashing down on the lords and on all the people in it. Those who were slain by him as he died outnumbered those who had been slain by him when he lived.” (Judges 16:30)
Samson’s final prayer to God was answered, and he succeeded in killing many of the hated Philistine leaders as he pulled the temple down upon himself in his heroic last act. But despite all of this, what had Samson truly accomplished? After his death, the Philistines continued to rule over and oppress the people of Israel, just as they had done in Samson’s lifetime. And so it’s fair to ask: was Samson’s life ultimately a failure?
Though Samson could not have known it at the time of his death, his life’s struggle to free the people of Israel from the yoke of the Philistines was not for naught. As the angel of God prophesied, “He shall begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). Before Samson, the people of Israel had completely given up hope. The Philistines were strong and powerful, possessing powerful weapons, while they were weak and divided. They never even contemplated rebelling against the mighty Philistines!
But Samson changed the dynamic. Samson was the first Israelite to dare to fight back against the Philistines! Though he did not, ultimately, lead his people to victory, he demonstrated that it was possible to stand up and fight! In other words, he began to restore national pride to the people of Israel. It would take many more years, and many more battles, before King David would finally and decisively defeat the Philistines. But Samson had planted the seeds – just like my grandfather.