(1 Samuel 15:1-34)
8 Adar II 5768
March 15, 2008
The prophet Samuel\’s confrontation with Saul over Saul\’s violation of the details of God\’s commandment to destroy the tribe of Amalek was tragic. Saul, the king of Israel, had carried out God\’s will in what he thought was an exemplary fashion. He had destroyed Israel\’s bitter enemy, the Amalekites, as God had demanded. Sure, he had saved their prime livestock but this was only because he wanted to offer them up to God. He had also spared Agag, the Amalekite king, in disregard of God\’s direct command, but this seemed inconsequential in his eyes.
Samuel, as God\’s agent, thought otherwise and his words reflect his consternation: \”Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord\’s command? Surely obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, defiance, like the iniquity of terafim. Because you rejected the Lord\’s command, He has rejected you as king.\” (Verses 22-23)
Saul was nonplussed by this reaction but admitted his sin and implored from Samuel to forgive his trespasses. However, both Samuel and God remained steadfast in their rejection of Saul as a result of this impropriety. The break was irreconcilable: \”As Samuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe, and tore it (vayehazek b\’knaf meilo vayikareah).\” (Verse 27)
The sages noticed a certain ambiguity in the language of this verse. Whose robe was torn and by whom was it torn? The context of this verse, makes us assume that it was Saul who grabbed Samuel\’s robe in an attempt to make him reconsider his decision. The following midrash examines alternative readings of this verse and comes to a different conclusion: \”\’And as Samuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe, and tore it\’. Whose robe? Rab and Levi disagree; one says the robe of Saul, while the other says the robe of Samuel. But reason suggests that he who says the robe of Samuel is correct, since it is the custom of the righteous to rend their garments when their plans do not turn out well.\” (Ruth Rabbah 7:12)
This midash presumes four possible readings of this verse: 1. Saul tore Samuel\’s robe, as noted above; 2. Samuel tore his own robe in sadness over the recognition that his anointing Saul as king was unsuccessful (the conclusion of this midrash); 3. Samuel tore Saul\’s robe as a sign that his kingdom had come to an end. (Rashi); 4. Saul tore his own robe in anguish over losing the kingship. (Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn on the midrash)
Each of these interpretations assumes the profound anguish of the parties over the tragic failure of the monarchy. Both Samuel and Saul felt a profound sense of lose and sadness, Samuel no less than Saul, for even though his anger and perhaps even jealousy over Saul\’s kingship was great, he seemed also to have a very honest and heartfelt affection for him. His is the despair of a mentor for a student gone wrong.