(1 Samuel 15:1-34)
March 6, 2004
Shabbat Zachor is the second of four special Shabbatot which precede Pesach. On Shabbat Zachor, the Maftir Torah reading recounts the episode where a tribe called Amalek attacked and slaughted the weak of the children of Israel. The children of Israel were then commanded to blot out the memory of Amalak. Since the rabbinic tradition associates Haman, the villain of the Purim with the tribe of Amalak, we celebrate this special Shabbat immediately before Purim.
The animosity between the children of Israel and the tribe of Amalek extended into the period of the beginning of the monarchy. Saul, the first king of Israel, was commanded by God to extirpate the Amalakites. This was the one war conducted by Saul with divine imprimatur. Saul, however, failed to carry out the divine imperative in its entirety since he allowed Agag, the king, as well as the best of the livestock to remain alive. This transgression cost Saul the kingship even though Saul admitted his sin and asked for God’s forgiveness. In a highly symbolic scene, Samuel the prophet dramatically wrested it from him: “And as Samuel turned away [from Saul] to go away, he [Saul] took hold of his [Samuel’s] robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him: ‘The Lord has rent from you the kingdom on this day and has given it to someone better than you.. Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind.’” (1 Samuel 15:27-29)
This highly charged confrontation is disturbing. How can it be that Saul is not given the opportunity to repent so that his rule might remain intact? This question disturbed the commentators to this story. Rabbi David Kimche, the 13th century Provencal commentator, explained that Saul was not given the chance to reclaim his throne because this was the second warning from God that he transgressed. (see 1 Samuel 13:14) Consequently there was no chance for repentance. Rashi adds that God could not restore the kingdom to Saul because he had already promised it to David. Consequently, he could not “change His mind”. Maimonides turns this idea into a doctrine describing divine behavior: “Anything good that God promises, even conditionally, God will not renege on it.” (Mishnah Torah, Foundations of the Torah 10:4) The situation here is more complicated, however, since Samuel’s prophecy involves something good [David’s coronation] and something bad [Saul’s fall]. Rabbi Meir Simcha from Dvinsk, the 19th-20th century Lithuanian sage, attempted to answer this question. He asserted that even where the prophecy is mixed like in our situation, still God will not renounce the positive decree. (Meshech Hochmah)
These explanations seem to explain the theology of this episode in a mechanical way. What is clear though in this situation is that sometimes what seems to be inconsequential and easily rectified like Saul’s mistake can have tragic consequences. Painful as this is, it is too often reality.
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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