Haftarah Parshat Titzaveh – Shabbat Zachor (1 Samuel 15:1-35)
March 11, 2017 / 13 Adar 5777
The episode of King Saul’s war against the Amalekites was certainly provocative. It was part of the ongoing saga which we first encountered in the Torah where we learn that the Amalekites waged a particularly offensive war against the children of Israel. The memory of the acrimony from that battle reverberated throughout the generations. Generations later the story continued when the prophet Samuel commanded King Saul to obliterate the Amalekites and resurfaced again in the book of Esther when Mordechai a descendent of the tribe of Saul tangles with Haman, a descendent of the Amalekites.
In the story of Saul, the acrimony between the children of Israel and the Amalekites was only part of the story. The conflict with the Amalekites also put the relationship between Saul and the prophet Samuel in jeopardy and along with it Saul’s reign as king. Samuel had demanded that the Amalekites be annihilated along with all of their property. Saul countermanded this request, leaving Agag, the Amalekite king, unharmed and their prime cattle alive so as to use them as an offering to God. For Samuel, Saul’s failure to heed the divine decree was the source of his downfall.
Leaving aside the moral conflict reflected in this command (to be taken up another time), the conflict between Samuel and Saul signaled two areas of religious conflict. One conflict was over authority. Samuel assumed that he was the source of authority and that Saul should be answerable to him. Saul, however, as he grew into his position became more independent as is indicated in his behavior in this episode. Similarly, Samuel was the agent of God’s will and as such a rebellion against Samuel was a rebellion against God.
Another major conflict was purely religious. What is the nature of service to God? Samuel’s assumption was that service to God meant adhering closely to God’s will. When Saul veered from God’s will so that he might sacrifice the prime animals before God, his intension was purely religious. He thought that this innovation would be the ultimate divine offering. Instead this act vexed Samuel, causing him only consternation. Consequently, the conclusion from this particular episode sided with duty over spirit.
Where do we stand on these issues? It seems to me that raising an awareness of the significance of the conflict in these areas is a gain in and of itself. The realization that we are conflicted over sources of power and their use is a very healthy and thoughtful thing. Similarly, we are still religiously conflicted over how best to serve God. Is it obedience that God wants or is it spirit?
An awareness of these conflicts serves who we are as religious human beings. And the story of Saul and Samuel can be instrumental in this goal.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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