February 24, 2018 | 9 Adar 5778
1 Samuel 15:2-34
King Saul was a tragic and tormented figure, and the events of this special haftarah for Parshat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, signal the beginning of his tragic downfall. In the special maftir Torah reading for this Shabbat, we read of the command to both remember the evil deeds of the Amalekites and to obliterate them.
Saul, in his role as king, was commanded by the prophet Samuel to carry out this commandment: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: ‘I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him… Spare no one…” (15:3) Nevertheless Saul spares Agag, the Amalekite king. Samuel admonishes Saul: “the Lord sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and proscribe the sinful Amalekites, make war on them until you have exterminated them.’ Why did you disobey the Lord…?” (15:18-19) The prophet then takes matters into his own hands, hacking Agag to pieces.
But while Samuel makes it quite clear that Saul forfeited the kingship when he deviated from God’s command, is there anything that can be said in Saul’s defense? When Saul tells Samuel: “I have fulfilled the Lord’s commandment.” (15:13) perhaps he is invoking the inherent subjectivity involved in performing God’s will and his belief that mercy, even here, is permissible. The apologetic nature of so many commentaries throughout the ages concerning the Torah’s command to destroy Amalek indicates the deep dissonance there is between this verse and the rest of our tradition.
Nevertheless, a famous midrash seeks to justify Samuel’s action: “Said Rabbi Elazar: ‘All who show mercy toward the cruel, in the end will become cruel to the merciful.'” (Tanhuma Metzorah 1). Mercy IS important, but we must overcome our urge to be merciful when dealing with the wicked, because mercy will ultimately backfire and lead to greater cruelty. (Incidentally, other midrashim see Haman as the progeny of Agag, descended from a child conceived in the short time between his being spared by Saul and executed by Samuel.)
Viewed together, Samuel and Saul are moral foils for each other – two sides in an important dialectic. Samuel is a man of absolutes: God’s word is definitive, and our role is to submit to it and fulfill it precisely, with no deviation right or left. Saul is more of an equivocator: God’s word is subject to interpretation in line with our values.
Each side makes a compelling case and has its passionate adherents. Who said the challenge of being God’s servant is easy?
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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