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Shabbat Zakhor 5766

Parshat Tetzaveah
Shabbat Zakhor
(I Samuel 15:2-34)
March 11, 2006

Rabbi Joseph Karo rules in his opus, the Shulchan Aruch: \”There are those who say that one is obligated to read Parshat Zachor and Parshat Parah Adumah as an obligation from the Torah (d\’oraita). Therefore those who live in villages where there is no minyan need to come to a place where there is a minyan on these Shabatot to hear these Torah readings for they are Torah ordained.\” (Orah Hayyim 785:7) This obligation, which was generally accepted for Parshat Zachor but not for Parshat Parah, is based on the legal assessment of the 12th century French Tosafists (Megillah 17b). What can be inferred from this decision is that the reading of the passage from the Torah which bids us to both remember the crimes of the tribe of Amalek and to obliterate both the tribe and its memory (Deut. 25:17-19) has a higher status of obligation than any other Torah reading during the year.

This greater degree of obligation accentuates the difficulties invoked by this passage, as was well noted by the Bagadadi authority (20th century), Rabbi Yaakov Haim Sofer, in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch: \”The reason that we do not say a blessing over the positive commandment of remembering Amalek is that one does not say a blessing over destruction… for the Holy One Blessed Be He said [to the angels who wanted to sing praise to God over Israel\’s redemption from the Egyptians while the Egyptians drowned in the sea]: the works of My hands are drowning in the sea and you want to sing?\” (Kaf HaHayyim 785:29)

The special haftarah for this Shabbat also reflects this conflict between sensibilities and the divine command. The prophet Samuel relayed to King Saul God\’s command to extirpate the tribe of Amalek. Saul fulfills this command only partially leaving Agag, the King and some of the Amalekite livestock alive. Saul\’s inattentiveness to this command left Samuel furious and in the end it served as the pretext for the termination of Saul\’s rule as king. The text of the Biblical story leaves us without an examination of Saul\’s inner conflict over his actions but the following midrash uses an obscure verse from the story as a means to flesh out Saul\’s struggle.

As the battle with the Amalekites was about to begin, Saul\’s strategy is described in these words: \”Then Saul advanced as far as the city of Amalek and lay in wait (literally: strove) in the wadi (vayarev banahal).\” (Verse 5) This verse led Rabbi Mani to certain inferences about Saul\’s throught processes: \”Rabbi Mani said: Because of what happens \”in the valley\”: When the Holy One Blessed Be He, said to Saul: Now go and smite Amalek, Saul said [to himself] If on account of one person [,who is murdered,] the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, how much more [ought consideration be given] to all these people! And if the people have sinned, what have the cattle done, and if the adults have sinned, what have the children done? A divine voice came forth and said: \”Be not overly righteous.\” (Ecclesiastes 7:17) (Yoma 22b)

Rabbi Mani refers, in this midrash, to the rite of the heifer (Deut. 21:1-9) which was performed wherever an unresolved murder occurred. In the midst of the battle, according to Rabbi Mani, Saul remembered this rite and it caused him to challenge his own actions and contemplate the value of the lives he was about to take. While the midrash ultimately rejects his conclusions, it is significant that it nevertheless records this so-called inner debate. This kind of deliberation is what makes Judaism an interesting and challenging religion. We value God\’s commands but we also value the debate which leads us to understand His will.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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