Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso, gives us an introduction to one of our most well-known and fascinating characters. But not so fast—this week we’re going to look not at the actual Torah reading itself, but rather to its corresponding haftarah, which is the excerpt from the section of the Prophets that is read. This haftarah is taken from the Book of Judges, and tells us about a guy you might have heard of — Samson.
The story of Samson actually spans four complete chapters in Judges, which can be described as the story of his origin and birth, his adult (and trust me, adult-themed) life, and his downfall, suffering, and eventual victory. Taken as one unit, the story of Samson makes an extraordinary short story, with dramatic characters, a generous touch of irony and humor, lots of sex and violence, and even a satisfying and decisive ending. And teens will love this story because it reads like a blockbuster action movie. (I’m picturing Russell Crowe as Samson.)
And you thought it was just about a guy who refused to get a haircut.
We first read about Samson’s mother, who had been mourning the fact that she wasn’t able to have any children. This is familiar Bible-speak for “She’s going to have a kid who will end up being very important.” There was only one catch: she was instructed by an angel of God that if she wanted to have a son, the son had to become a Nazarite, meaning that he couldn’t touch a drop of alcohol (a deal breaker for some people right there) or ever get his hair cut (a deal breaker for their wives). But, if Mom and Dad would agree to those terms, they would have a son who would eventually go on to defeat the Israelites’ arch enemies, the Philistines.
It’s a deal.
This is where the haftarah stops, but it more than whets our appetite for the whole story, so here’s what happens next.
Samson grows up and marries a Philistine woman (his father actually asks him, “What, there are no nice Jewish girls that you could marry?”), slays and rips apart a lion with his bare hands, and kills a bunch of people just to take their clothing.
Samson clearly has anger issues. In fact, he most resembles the Incredible Hulk, because he often flies into uncontrollable fits of rage and takes on super-human powers.
His first marriage doesn’t end so well (his wife runs away with one of the guys in his wedding party), so he meets and falls in love with a woman named Delilah. She is secretly a spy for the Philistines, and she is tasked with the job of finding out what makes Samson so strong, and how they could defeat him. She uses all of her feminine wiles to finally find out that it’s because he’s never cut his hair. So one night, she waits till he’s asleep, whips out the shears, and the newly weakened (but much neater-looking) Samson is eventually captured by the Philistines, blinded, and thrown into slavery.
The story concludes with Samson, chained to the pillars of the Philistine temple and near death, entreating God to give him just one last bit of strength. God obliges and Samson brings down the pillars. The temple collapses, killing him along with all of the Philistines.
I just love a happy ending.
Previous week’s parshas:
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt
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