Haftarah Parshat Tzav
(1 Samuel 15:2-34)
March 15, 2014
13 AdarII 5774
Reading the story of God’s command to obliterate the Amalekites is always disturbing. It was no less so for the sages than it is for us today. The Amalekites, who were a tribe which gained infamous renown for attacking the weak and defenseless among the Israelites on their trek out of Egypt, came to represent the epitome of villainous behavior. Still, God’s command is extremely disquieting.
A sage in the Talmud expresses this concern in a purported debate between God and King Saul. In the biblical story, Saul does battle with the Amalekites in a valley: “And he strove in the valley.” (1 Samuel 15:5) To Rabbi Mani, this seems out of place since the Amalekites lived in the hills. In addition, the use of the word “valley” reminds him of the mitzvah of “eglah arufah – the rite of breaking a calf’s neck” which was carried out in a valley when a murdered body was found where the perpetrator was unknown. (See Deuteronomy 21) These two textual issues prompted him to surmise the following debate beteen God and Saul: “’And he strove in the valley’ (1 Samuel 15:5) – Rabbi Mani said: [Understand these events] on account of what happens ‘in the valley’ [namely the commandment concerning the ‘eglah arufa’(See Deuteronomy 21:4)]: When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Saul: Now go and smite Amalek (1 Samuel 15:3), Saul responded: If on account of one person the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, how much more [ought consideration to be given] to all these persons[namely, the Amalekites who You are asking me to kill]! And if human beings sinned, what [sin] have the cattle committed; and if the adults have sinned, what have the children done? A divine voice came forth and said: “Be not righteous overmuch”. (Ecclesiastes 7:9) And when Saul said to Doeg: Turn and fall upon the priests [of Nob]”, a heavenly voice came forth to say: “Be not overmuch wicked”. (Ibid. 7:17) (adapted from Yoma 22b)
This midrash has Saul representing the ‘moral’ voice arguing with God concerning the fate of the Amalekites, while in other circumstances, where Saul sought to slaughter his own purported enemies (the priest of the town of Nob who Saul thought had sided with David against him), God warns Saul regarding his own ‘evil’ acts. This debate is disturbing. The sages recognized this. They realized that moral decision making is not a simple thing and that human beings are not always conscious of what is moral and what is not. Sometimes the very same act can be right in one situation and wrong in another. Cognizance of this fact, is the first step in a debate that is never likely to end.
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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