You can learn a lot about a country by the way it contemplates its own demise.
In Israel, a nation sometimes forced into and often infatuated with fantasies of self-annihilation, suicidal thoughts have taken on several forms over the course of the last few decades. In the early 1940s, with Erwin Rommel galloping through Egypt, the leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine proposed a plan entitled Masada on Mt. Carmel. If the Wehrmacht swept past the border and into the Promised Land, went the thought, the Jews would move en masse to the northern mountain and fight there, to the death, just as their ancestors had done on the arid desert plateau millennia earlier. Rommel was stopped at El Alamein, but two decades later, in the early 1960s, the now-independent Jewish nation once again had suicide on its mind. If the belligerence of its Arab neighbors became too great to resist, several of Israel’s leaders mused in private, the Jewish state’s last resort might have to be a massive nuclear assault that would eliminate both Israel and its aggressors. Searching Jewish history for inspiration, they found a model hero; the plan became known as the Samson Option.
The immediate threat, luckily, has passed, and Israel prevailed in armed conflict after armed conflict. But Samson, whose birth is the subject of this week’s haftorah, remains a potent emblem for Israel today, a nation whose strengths and weaknesses have never before been so intricately intertwined.
To his ardent defenders—and there are many in the annals of rabbinic thought—Samson is a tragic figure, a miraculously born vessel of God who played his part and paid the price. Even when Samson sins, noted some rabbis, he does so with some hidden, divine goal in mind. When the muscular hero, for example, decides to take on a Philistine wife, his parents are distraught. “Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren,” they moan, “or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?” But the biblical narrator makes sure we readers know the real deal. The very next verse reassures us that Samson’s “father and his mother knew not that it was of the Lord, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.”
Other commentators, however, have been less forgiving. Sure, they argued, many of Samson’s woes were preordained, but he himself is no innocent lamb. Never one to resist temptation, he followed his heart’s desires, wedding women and slaying foes and surrendering often to his animal instincts. The 12th-century scholar Rabbi David Kimche went as far as claiming that this was the reason Samson ended up being blinded by his enemies; no punishment could be more fitting for one who so frequently followed his eyes rather than remain pure of heart.
Which Samson we choose to see depends on our worldview. Comparing Greek tragedies with Shakespeare’s, W.H. Auden famously made the following helpful distinction. Watching Oedipus, Auden wrote, the audience is stricken by a sense of tragedy that originates from witnessing the Greek follow the preordained path that leads him to doom. As father is slain and mother wed, the audience, Auden claims, whispers “what a pity it had to happen this way.” But the same audience, watching Shakespeare’s Scottish play, is likely to experience a sensation of an altogether different sort; witnessing Macbeth consider his options and then, of his own free will, favor a bloody, murderous path, the audience, sighs “what a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.” This, the poet instructs us, is the fundamental difference between the Greek and the Christian tragic hero: The former is tragic because he has no choice, the latter precisely because he can choose.
The Israel that contemplated mass suicide decades ago could easily be categorized as the former. Besieged by its neighbors and starved for resources, the Jewish state glared at its alleged nuclear arsenal and thought that, like Samson, it, too, would perish and take its foes down with it. But the Israel of more recent times—the one that gave the name Shimshon, Hebrew for Samson, to a special army unit designed to infiltrate the Palestinian population in order to arrest and assassinate militants—is no longer that desperate nation. Like Samson, it must now learn that no matter how great the promise at birth, it’s the things we do as adults that matter. Like Samson, it must now learn to cope with its power.
Again, Samson himself sets a poignant example. When he used his considerable, divinely inspired strength to defend his people, the spirit moved him, and his transgressions, numerous as they were, were all forgiven. But when he continued to abuse his might, he ended up weak and tortured, with a murderous suicide as his only measure of reclaiming a sense of agency and a trace of dignity.
Like Samson’s supporters, those who defend Israel’s actions without thought or criticism are dooming it to a tragic end. If we insist that war is always justifiable, always inevitable, always a desirable way to flex our muscles and bare our teeth, we may as well begin lamenting, like Auden’s audience, the pity of a disaster foretold. But if we think, like Rabbi Kimche, that no measure of divine will releases us from taking responsibility for our actions, and that much more is expected of those to whom great privileges and powers have been given, then the tragedy becomes much more profound: We are left to lament not only what was but what could have been as well.
The haftorah did well by introducing us only to Samson’s birth and leaving out the later story of his downfall. We are left to understand that we must not only mourn the slain Samson but also, and primarily, contemplate the circumstances of his demise. For anyone who is seriously committed to the well being of the state of Israel, there could be no subject more urgent. This week, Peter Beinart took a courageous and important step in the right direction, but even if we reject his interpretation, we’re not permitted to excuse ourselves from this discussion. If we do, we’ll end up powerless and blind.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.