By Rabbi Elie Mischel
Change or continuity? Revolution or tradition? Throughout the modern age, our society has been caught between the values of tradition and stability on the one hand, and the need for change and improvement on the other. A society that abandons its traditions will inevitably lose its way, as America has in our own generation. But at the same time, a society that refuses to address its failures and weaknesses will lose its dynamism and inevitably decline.
How can we navigate the need for both tradition and change? Gideon, the great savior of Israel, demonstrates how to walk this narrow bridge.
Gideon revered and honored his father Joash. But when God appointed him to lead the people of Israel against their Midianite oppressors, Gideon faced a thorny challenge. To bring salvation, the people of Israel would have to abandon their idolatrous ways and return to God. But Gideon’s own father worshiped idols! How could Gideon destroy his community’s idols while also honoring his father?
The answer can be found in the Biblical command to honor our parents:
You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My Sabbaths: I am Hashem your God. (Leviticus 19:3)
Rashi, the great medieval Biblical commentator, asks why the Scripture juxtaposes the commandment to honor one’s parents with the commandment to keep the Sabbath. What does one have to do with the other?
Rashi writes that through this juxtaposition, God is teaching us a fundamental principle: “‘Although I have admonished you regarding the fear of your father, nevertheless, if he tells you to desecrate the Sabbath, do not listen to him.’ And this is also the case with all the [other] commandments. ‘I am the Lord, your God; both you and your father are obligated to honor Me! Therefore, do not listen to him to negate My commands.’”
Although honoring our mother and father is one of the Ten Commandments, our obligation to God comes before our obligation to our parents. If we are forced to choose between them, we must choose to follow God!
And so Gideon does:
“That night Hashem said to him: “Take the young bull belonging to your father and another bull seven years old; pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the sacred post which is beside it… So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as Hashem had told him; but as he was afraid to do it by day, on account of his father’s household and the townspeople, he did it by night.” (Judges 6:25, 27)
How did Gideon’s father react to his son’s act of disobedience? To his credit, Joash was humble enough to recognize his sin:
“The townspeople said to Yoash, “Bring out your son, for he must die: he has torn down the altar of Baal and cut down the sacred post beside it!” But Yoash said to all who had risen against him, “Do you have to contend for Baal? Do you have to vindicate him? Whoever fights his battles shall be dead by morning! If he is a god, let him fight his own battles, since it is his altar that has been torn down!” (Judges 6:30-31)
Joash displayed great humility by publicly acknowledging that his son was correct. But I believe that much of the credit for Joash’s humility is due to his son, Gideon. For Gideon was not just a revolutionary; he was also a deeply respectful son! Even when Gideon was forced to reject his father’s idolatry, he remained respectful and loving towards his father. Gideon was able to implement revolutionary change while remaining respectful of his elders!
We, in our own generation, have to learn from Gideon and Joash. Yes, our society is imperfect and requires change. But change must always be implemented carefully, and with great respect for the traditions of our fathers!
By following the ways of Gideon, we will fulfill the prophecies concerning Elijah, another great man from the tribe of Manasseh, and bring the final redemption. As the prophet Malachi says:
“He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.” (Malachi 3:23)
May we soon see that day!