Vayechi: What Makes Samson Such a Hero?

When Yaakov Avenu blesses Dan, the sages tell us that through “Ruach HaKodesh”, Yaakov saw Samson wreaking havoc upon the Philistines, and thought that he was the Messiah. Only after seeing Samson die did a disappointed Yaakov realize that Samson was not the Messiah, and thus he uttered the words in our parsha, “I waited for your salvation, Oh Lord”.

Even for those not so well-versed in the Bible, Samson has become a household name. He is the stereotype of the ‘mighty hero”. Is this characterization a correct one, or a misconception of the masses? What gives Samson his superstar status, making him easily the most popular and widely know Judge? If it is for his brute physical strength, the sages surprise us by telling us that Samson was lame! Why would they say such a thing if not to remove from our minds the image of a macho-muscle-man.

Perhaps one might want to say that Samson fulfilled the definition of “hero” (gibor, in Hebrew) according to “Pirke Avot”: “Who is a ‘gibor’? He who conquers his evil inclination”. Without delving too deep into Samson’s deeds and motives with women, one can safely say that he was not exactly a symbol of the “Tzadeek” who overcame his “Yaizer” (evil inclination). The sages tell us clearly: “Samson went after his eyes, and thus his eyes were gouged out by the Philistines.”

Must we then conclude that the popularity surrounding the figure of Samson today is due to the fact that somehow, his persona “caught on” more than other heroic figures in the Bible? Is Samson’s popularity amongst the masses simply a product of media-hype? After all, Devora, Yiftach, Gideon and every other Judge certainly killed a lot more of the enemy than Samson did. Killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass is quite an accomplishment, but it hardly rates with the electrifying and decisive victories of the other Judges that ruled before him. In fact, when the Bible tells us that the “dead that he slew in his death were more than he slew in his life” – it is not meant as a compliment, but rather as a commentary that Samson did not put up the “big numbers” like the other Judges did.

And so again, is Samson, the darling of the masses, somehow overrated? Let us not jump to hasty conclusions! After all, we opened this article by saying that Yaakov Avenu himself saw Samson’s potential to be the Messiah. In addition, in comparison to all the other Judges mentioned in the Book of Judges, Samson has by far the most space allotted to him. This brings us to another difficult question. During his lifetime, Samson was scorned by his own people to such an extent that we find no parallel to it with any other Judge. At one point, fellow Jews even turn him over to the Philistines. Since his support among the people is virtually non-existent, he is reduced to carrying out partisan-style attacks against the enemy instead of leading an army against them. Why should the Bible dedicate so many chapters and stories to a Judge who had absolutely no supporting cast? Why is HE a candidate for Messiah?

Despite all the above questions and doubts, it is clear that Samson isindeed someone very special. Even before his birth, an angel of G-d came to his parents and spoke of the birth of this extraordinary son, “for a Nazarite to G-d shall the boy be…and he will begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”

The answer to the riddle of Samson’s greatness lies in the supposed weakness of his not enjoying the support of his people. Even though he was betrayed by his own people, he continued to love them and fight on their behalf. His internal strength and his willingness to stand alone and fight “Chillul Hashem” (the desecration of G-d’s Name) are why he is described as “beginning to save Israel”. In the same way that Moses never turned his back on the Jewish People, despite their endless accusations against him, Samson remained firm in his faith and “Ahavat Yisrael”. At the same time, the people disparaged him as irresponsible and violent, a hot-blooded lunatic who “makes things worse” by fermenting hatred against the Jews on the part of the Philistines. Samson paid no heed to them. For this he would eventually be recognized as the great leader he was.

And while it is true that he sinned, Samson physically sacrificed himself for the Jewish People. Even in his last moments where he stood weakened, blinded, and bound – what grieved him was not his personal suffering, but rather the tremendous desecration of G-d’s Name that this was causing. When Yaakov saw all this; placing G-d’s Honor over his own, putting his people’s pain before his own – he understood that such a man is worthy of being the Messiah.

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