(1 Samuel 15:1-34)
March 19, 2005
This week\’s special haftarah for Parshat Zachor is the second of the four special readings which precede Pesach. It is read on the Shabbat before Purim because the rabbinic tradition holds that Haman in the Purim story was a descendent of the family of Agag, the king of the Amalekites. In the haftarah, the battle between the Israelite nation and the Amalekites serves as the backdrop for the confrontation between the prophet Samuel and King Saul. Samuel is profoundly displeased when Saul disregards God\’s exact command in dealing with Agag and the Amalekites in favor of following the will of the people: \”And Samuel said: \’What is the sound of the sheep in my ears and the sound of the cattle that I hear?\’ And Saul said: \’They [the people] have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen to sacrifice unto the Lord the God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.\’\” (1 Samuel 15:14-15) Samuel\’s biting reply to Saul is: \”Though you seem insignificant in your own sight, are you not head of the tribes of Israel?\” (verse 17)
Samuel cannot abide Saul\’s not acting like a king, allowing the people to stray from the will of God. He expects leaders to lead without falling prey to populist yearnings. Rabbi David Kimche (Provance 12th century) captures Samuel\’s consternation: \”You [Saul] were anointed king over them to lead them down the straight path and to keep them from sin. How did you allow them to transgress God\’s words? It was not their sin; rather it was your sin for you had the ability to object to their behavior but did not object. Consequently, it appeared that their acts had your approval and that you \”coveted the booty and swooped down upon it.\” (See verse 19) Targum Yonathon translated verse 17 this way: \”Did you not rise up from your beginnings and yet you feel yourself insignificant; The merit of the tribe of Benjamin, your forefather, brought about your becoming king of Israel, for they wanted to be the first to cross the sea [upon leaving Egypt] in order to lead the people of Israel [out of Egypt]. For this reason, God made you the king of Israel.\” This Targum is corroborated by a story in the Talmud: \”The tribe of Benjamin sprang forward and descended into the sea first… Then the tribe of Judah started to stone them and Nachshon ben Aminadov (from the tribe of Judah) descended into the sea first instead. (see Sotah 35b-36a) (adapted translation of Kimche)
Kimche\’s interpretation, based on the Targum and Talmud, sought to use the model of Saul\’s tribe\’s behavior at the sea to provide him with a leadership model. Leaders must lead the people to do what is right rather than follow the lead of the popular will which potentially contains the seeds of their downfall. It is this tragic lesson which Samuel sought to transmit to Saul.
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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