Haftarah Parshat Tetzaveh
(1 Samuel 15:1-34)
March 3, 2012
9 AdarI 5772
Purim is fast approaching, and before Purim there is Shabbat Zachor, where we read of our obligation to remember the evil deeds of the Amalakites against our people and to cause the Amalekites to be obliterated, both literally and figuratively. The Purim season is the only time of the Jewish year which is truly carnivalesque and yet it is not without its moral problems. The Torah’s obligations in Parshat Zachor are disquieting. In Exodus 17:8-16, we learn the details of the battle between the children of Israel and God’s decree against them and in the special maftir reading for this Shabbat (Deut. 25:17-19), we learn more of their wrongdoings and God’s commandment to Israel against them. The special haftarah for Shabbat Zachor actually recounts the prophet Samuel’s call to King Saul to carry out these commands. Saul carries them out as commanded with the exception of sparing Agag, the king of the Amalekites and some of the enemies’ herds to offer as a sacrifice. Samuel, dissatisfied with Saul’s disregard for his explicit commands, chastises him and finishes off the job himself by slaying Agag.
These episodes are morally disquieting. A careful study of how the sages justify these episodes indicates that the sages were also troubled by them. One example from the rabbinic midrash on the book of Samuel will suffice to illustrate: “’Truly He knows their deeds; night is over and they are crushed’ (Job 34:25) – Said Rabbi Hanina: The Holy One Blessed be He never punishes anyone until He first punishes their angel on High, as it is written: ‘On that day, the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven’ (Isaiah 24:21) and only then ‘the king of the earth on earth.’ (Ibid.); [Another interpretation: The Holy One Blessed be He never punishes anyone until He reads to them the charges against them… And so, initially, ‘Amalek came’ (Exodus 17:8); afterwards, ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ (Deut. 25:17); and afterwards, ‘Thus said the Lord of Hosts: I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did.’ (1 Samuel 15:2)” (adapted from Midrash Samuel 18:1 Lipshitz ed. p. 60 – emended according to Lipshitz. See p. 318)
What we see in this midrash is that Rabbi Hanina interprets the three different episodes noted above to be an indication of the stages in a proper judicial process involved in their punishment: first they came and attacked Israel, then God presented charges against them and only afterwards were they punished. Rabbi Hanina could not conceive that true justice was not done even with the Amalekites and consequently, he read the sources such that due process was indicated. He could expect no less from God. We should expect no less from ourselves.