Haftarah Parshat Titzaveh – Shabbat Zachor (1 Samuel 15:1-34)
February 28, 2015 / 9 Adar 5775
Small details in a biblical story often become fodder for interesting and provocative ideas in the hands of the sages. As is well known, King Saul sinned when he allowed Agag the king of the Amakites to live, since he had been commanded to obliterate the Amalakites: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made on them upon the road, on their way out of Egypt. Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, ox and sheep, camels and asses.” (1 Samuel 15:2-3) However, Saul left Agag alive: “Saul said unto Samuel: ‘But I did obey the Lord. I performed the mission on which the Lord sent me. I captured King Agag of Amalek, and I proscribed Amalek.” (15:20) Samuel responded with fury at Saul’s transgression, finishing off Agag himself: “And Samuel cut Agag down before the Lord at Gilgal.” (15:34)
Rabbinic legend takes account of this small aggregate of time, considering it sufficient for Agag to procreate, resulting ultimately in the birth of Haman the Agagite, arch-enemy of the Jews in the Purim story. This account does not end here. The following midrash further fleshes out the rationale for this “retelling” of the story, founding it on the assumption of an act of faith on Agag’s part: “God did not bring Haman into the world except on account of a [divine] reward accounted to Agag, for he used to cry and sigh during the time he was incarcerated in prison. He said: ‘Woe is me that my progeny will be lost to the world.” (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 20, Ish Shalom ed. p. 115)
There is something audacious about this midrash. It attributes the birth of a demonic evil enemy of the Jewish people to the reward of a positive act by another wicked enemy of the Jews. Since Agag “prayed to God”, he was rewarded with progeny. What could the author of this midrash possibly have had in mind here?
The sages often used hyperbole to express themselves. This midrash probably wanted to emphasize the idea that recognition of God and prayer never go unrewarded, not even when practiced by those furthest from God. If Agag was answered, then most certainly … This affirmation that people are ultimately redeemable is crucial to the Jewish message. Optimism must reign. This message is particularly acute in this Purim season where ultimate despair is rescued by optimism. When there is a nadir, there will ultimately be light.
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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