By Rabbi Eliezer Mischel
As a synagogue rabbi in New Jersey, I often thought of the classic insight that “no good deed goes unpunished.” While celebrating happy events like weddings and bar mitzvahs, I would praise a particular congregant or family in the community from the pulpit, only to find out afterwards that they were upset over something I said or neglected to say.
In the book of Judges, we find a similar dynamic in an interaction between an angel of God and Gideon. When God seeks a leader to inspire the Israelites to rebel against their Midianite oppressors, He sends an angel to recruit Gideon. But Gideon’s reaction is anything but kind!
The angel of Hashem appeared to him and said to him, “Hashem is with you, valiant warrior!” Gideon said to him, “Please, my lord, if Hashem is with us, why has all this befallen us? Where are all His wondrous deeds about which our fathers told us, saying, ‘Truly Hashem brought us up from Egypt’? Now Hashem has abandoned us and delivered us into the hands of Midian!” (Judges 6:12-13)
Why does God choose such a rude and ungrateful man to be the savior of Israel?
Commenting on this verse, Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that Gideon went so far as to accuse God of being unjust:
“It was Passover so he said, ‘Last night my father recited the Hallel [songs of praise and thanks to God] and I heard him say, ‘When Israel departed from Egypt, etc.,’ (thus recounting the miracles God performed on behalf of Israel,) but now He has forsaken us. If our forefathers were righteous, let Him perform (wonders) for us in their merit, and if they were wicked, then just as He did for them undeserving wonders, so should He do for us. Where, then, are all His wonders?’”
Is Gideon truly an insolent man who does not trust in God’s kindness and righteousness?
Rabbi Isaac Arama (1420 – 1494) explains that we are missing the underlying message of Gideon’s response. “The angel came to Gideon to find a man who would save the people of Israel from their Midianite oppressors. This goal was etched upon Gideon’s heart. Gideon did not think about his own personal concerns, and he was not concerned with saving his own crops from the Midianites [who regularly plundered Israelite farms]. Rather, Gideon turned his heart toward the suffering of his people and their salvation…” (Akeidat Yitzchak, Exodus 1:1).
Gideon’s emotional outburst was not meant to be insolent or an angry diatribe against God. On the contrary – it was a sign of his deep love for the people of Israel! While sitting at his father’s Passover seder, Gideon took the message of the Exodus to heart: “God is great and all-powerful; He can save us from any enemy, no matter how frightening they might be. Why, then, does God not save us from our oppressors now??”
While other Israelites were concerned for their own lands and their own safety, Gideon felt the pain of his entire people. His emotional response to the angel was, therefore, a sign of his greatness; it was proof that God had chosen the right man to lead his people to salvation.
In our own time, we too are confronted with great evil. Terrorists seek to murder as many Jews as they can, while anti-religious bigots hound religious believers in the United States and throughout the west. How should we respond?
I believe that Gideon is our guide. The first critical step when responding to evil is to care! When we witness the suffering of innocent victims, we must awaken from our slumber and passivity and feel their pain! Like Gideon, we must find room in our hearts to care about more than ourselves and our personal concerns. And like Gideon, we must feel pain, anger and frustration, for these are the emotions that will propel us to genuine prayer and to fight in defense of all that is good and holy.