Powerful warriors don’t fare very well in the Bible, to put it kindly.
When Og, the giant warrior King of Bashan, attacked the people of Israel in the wilderness, Moses made quick work of him:
“King Og of Bashan, with all his people, came out to Edrei to engage them in battle. But Hashem said to Moshe, “Do not fear him, for I give him and all his people and his land into your hand… They defeated him and his sons and all his people, until no remnant was left him” (Numbers 21:33-35).
Goliath, the terrifying Philistine warrior, fared no better against young David:
“A champion of the Philistine forces stepped forward; his name was Goliath of Gath, and he was six cubits [ten feet] tall… David put his hand into the bag; he took out a stone and slung it. It struck the Philistine in the forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground” (I Samuel, 17:4,49)
This, it would seem, is no mere coincidence. While the pagan nations of antiquity placed their trust in their own physical strength, the people of Israel were called upon to trust in God:
“They [call] on chariots, they [call] on horses, but we call on the name of Hashem our God” (Psalms 20:8).
With the passing of time, physical strength became even more suspect in Jewish tradition. When the second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were sent into exile, the Jewish people were constantly in a position of physical weakness. Warriors, by and large, were antisemites; Jews were scholars and businessmen. Over time, some Jews even took pride in their powerlessness, feeling that it conferred upon them the moral high ground.
Given this history, what are we to make of Samson, the most powerful Israelite warrior in the Bible?
Samson’s defining characteristic was his superhuman strength. His strength first emerges in a one-on-one battle with a lion:
“When he came to the vineyards of Timnah [for the first time], a full-grown lion came roaring at him. The spirit of Hashem gripped him, and he tore him asunder with his bare hands as one might tear a kid asunder…” (Judges 14:5-6)
But Samson’s unbelievable strength is most apparent when he single-handedly takes on the entire Philistine army – and emerges victorious!
“He came upon a fresh jawbone of an ass and he picked it up; and with it he killed a thousand men” (Judges 15:14).
Though Samson’s physical strength and fierceness as a warrior make many people uncomfortable, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of modern times, had a very different perspective on Samson and his physical strength:
“Samson, who was praised for his great physical strength, was holy to God, judged the people before their Father in Heaven and is even associated with the name of God itself… In the end of days, the people of Israel will require great physical strength in service of holiness… And the holiness the people will muster is drawn from the original and holy Nazirite of God – Samson” (Letters, Volume 4, 89).
Rabbi Kook believed that not only shouldn’t we be ashamed of Samson, but that the Jewish people of today must turn to Samson for inspiration! To bring the final redemption, the Jewish people must partner with God in resettling the land of Israel. 120 years ago, when the Jewish people began returning to the land, Israel was desolate; a land of mosquito-infested swamps and barren hills. To brave the elements and bring the land back to life, the Jewish people would need brute, physical strength. Incredibly, with God’s help and decades of intense labor, the pioneers succeeded in making the land flower once again.
Physical strength is also needed to protect the nation of Israel from the enemies that surround it. Though many in the Western world automatically support the Palestinians “because Israel is so powerful,” this is foolish thinking. If the Israeli army was weak, Israel’s enemies would inflict another Holocaust upon the Jewish people, God forbid. There is no shame in being strong; it is essential to God’s plan for the people of Israel!
At the same time, the people of Israel must never make the mistake of the pagans. Ultimately, no matter how physically strong we might be, we must always remember that our success is due to God. As David so beautifully said to Goliath:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the ranks of Israel” (I Samuel, 17:45).
Not only must we remember that our strength comes from God, but Samson reminds us that physical strength, like any other gift or ability, must be used for the sake of heaven. We are called upon to serve God with all our might, using our strength and talents to make the world a better place and to protect our people from harm. Samson’s strength, then, becomes a symbol not only of physical prowess but of the potential for the great good that lies within each and every one of us. May we all strive to use our strength and abilities in service of holiness, following in the footsteps of Samson and the many other heroes of Jewish tradition who have gone before us.