(1 Samuel 15:1-34)
February 27, 2010
13 Adar 5770
The special haftarah for Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat which precedes Purim, recounts the biblical episode in which the prophet Samuel commanded King Saul to totally destroy the Amalekite nation. Saul did not carry out this command in full and on account of this negligence; Samuel admonished him that the kingship would be wrested from his hands. Later on in the book of Samuel, King Saul met an ignoble death impaled on his own sword. In the book of Chronicles, the last book of the Tanach, the story of this event is retold, citing a list of Divine grievances against Saul as reasons for his death: \”Saul died for the trespass that he had committed against the Lord in not having fulfilled the command of the Lord; moreover he had consulted a ghost to seek advice, and did not seek the advice of the Lord, so He had him slain and the kingdom transferred to David son of Jesse. (1 Chronicles 10:13)
It is difficult to know from this verse the details of Saul\’s trespasses. When the biblical tradition is laconic, the midrashic tradition often attempts to fill the void.
The following midrash uses this verse from Chronicles to reveal the specific sins which contributed to Saul\’s death: \”Saul died on account of five sins: \’Saul died for the trespass that he had committed against the Lord\’ – on account of having killed the inhabitants of Nob, the city of priests and on account of showing mercy to Agag the king of Amalek. \’in not having fulfilled the command of the Lord\’ – that he did not listen to Samuel, for Samuel said to him: \’Wait seven days until I come to you and instruct you what you are to do next.\’ (1 Sam. 10:8); \’moreover had consulted a ghost to seek advice\’ – that Saul consulted ghosts. \’and did not seek the advice of the Lord\’ – \’And Saul said to the priest: Withdraw your hand.\’ (Here, his intention is not to take the advice of the priests.) (Leviticus Rabbah 26:7 Margoliot ed. pp. 606-7)
The transgressions mentioned in this midrash share a common thread. The strength of Saul\’s leadership depended on his loyalty to God and his strength of character and will. His sins indicated that he lacked these qualities. Those who deserved his loyalty, he turned into enemies and those who were his enemies, he treated with mercy; and where God should have been his guide, he turned to false gods. This midrash evinces a sense of Saul\’s tragic nature. He was a great hero but his fatal flaws brought about his downfall. He is a painful example of how important loyalty and character are in the making or breaking of a heroic figure.
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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