By Rabbi Elie Mischel
Othniel, the first judge of Israel described in the book of Judges, was a courageous warrior and military leader. When Caleb, the aging leader of the tribe of Judah, sought a younger man to lead the men of Judah in battle, Othniel volunteered:
“And Caleb announced, ‘I will give my daughter Achsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiryat Sefer.’ His younger kinsman, Otniel the Kenizzite, captured it; and Caleb gave him his daughter Achsah in marriage.” (Judges 1:12-13)
This, it would seem, is the conclusion of the story. Othniel leads the men of Judah to victory, and is rewarded by being given the hand of Achsah, daughter of the legendary Caleb, in marriage.
But that’s not the end of the story! The book of Judges then shares a short, strange story about Achsah, Othniel’s new wife:
“When she came [to him], she induced him to ask her father for some property. She dismounted from her donkey, and Caleb asked her, ‘What is the matter?’ She replied, ‘Give me a present, for you have given me only Negev-land [in the desert]; give me springs of water.’ And Caleb gave her Upper and Lower Gulloth.” (Judges 1:14-15)
After marrying Othniel, it seems that Caleb gave his daughter and son-in-law a portion of land in the tribe of Judah’s territory in the Negev desert, in southern Israel. Achsah, however, wasn’t satisfied with her father’s gift, for her father had given her and Othniel desert lands without water – and what, really, can you do with land if you don’t have water? And so Caleb gave her additional portion of land, the Upper and Lower Gulloth, that contained springs of water.
When I first read these verses, I was confused. Why is this short personal story about Achsah, and her request for water for her farm, recorded in the Bible? What relevance does this story have to the great national and religious themes of the Book of Judges?
Every verse in the Bible is essential, and every story is there to teach us something important and eternal. This short story about Achsah and her request for water is no exception.
In the first chapter of Judges, Othniel is the brave hero who leads his people and succeeds in conquering the Land from its idolatrous inhabitants. But the Book of Judges wants us to understand that victory in battle is only the beginning. To fully acquire the land of Israel, the Jewish people must not only conquer but also settle the Holy Land.
This is why we are told the story of Achsah and her tenacious determination to acquire water for her new farm. Achsah understood that military victories are critical – but the land must also be settled and made to bloom and prosper. Had Achsah not acquired water for her land, her husband’s military exploits would have been meaningless!
In our generation, when the people of Israel have returned to the Land of Israel and are struggling to conquer and settle it, the story of Achsah and Othniel is particularly relevant. Beginning in the late 1960s, after the 6 Day War, Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Levinger, of blessed memory, led the struggle to rebuild the Jewish community of Hebron, despite great opposition from local Arabs and the Israeli government. Hebron, of course, is part of the ancient tribal portion of Judah, which Caleb and Othniel first captured thousands of years ago!
Though Rabbi Levinger was better known to the broader Israeli public, it was his wife, Miriam, who was a “modern day Achsah.” Miriam would often joke that she “brought the first Jewish refrigerator to Hebron.” While her husband gave public speeches and helped lead the settlement movement, Miriam ensured that the small and endangered Jewish community of Hebron continued to function and grow. Because of her sacrifice, the Jewish community of Hebron and Kiryat Arba is now over 10,000 strong.
When Miriam passed away in 2020, a friend eulogized her: “She dreamed of a renewed Hebron which would be visited each year by tens of thousands of Jews, where children could play freely in the streets and in the ancient field by the Cave of the Patriarchs, and she was blessed, through her efforts, and through the efforts of all those whom she inspired, to see her dream come true.”
Miriam, like so many other extraordinary women in modern Israel, worked quietly behind the scenes to ensure that the Jewish people not only conquer the land of Israel, but also settle it and make it their own. May their holy sacrifice never be forgotten!