Parshat Titzaveh-Shabbat Zachor
(I Samuel 15:2-34)
February 23, 2002
Shabbat Zachor is the second of the four special Shabbatot which precede Pesach. It is associated with Purim because tradition relates that Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was a descendant of the tribe of Amalek. This tribe was known for its particularly malevolent behavior towards the children of Israel while they were on their journey through the desert before reaching the land of Israel. The Torah especially berates Amalek for harming the weak and infirm, all for no good reason. In this Shabbat’s maftir reading (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), the Torah commands Israel to both remember Amalek’s heinous deeds and to destroy it. Similarly, the haftarah records God’s command to King Saul, generations later, to exact this sentence upon the tribe of Amalek. King Saul fails to carry out this command in its entirety and the prophet Samuel judges him harshly for this transgression.
The following midrash attempts to account for Saul’s failure to respond to the divine command:
’So do not be overly righteous nor overly wise’ (Ecclesiastes 7:16) – don’t try to be more righteous than your Creator – this refers to Saul, as it written: ‘And Saul came to the city of Amalek’ (1 Samuel 15:5). Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Banaya said: [Before Saul came to the city he equivocated about the divine command to eradicate the Amalekites] and said, ‘the Holy One Blessed be He said: ‘Go and strike down Amalek.’ (Ibid.verse 3) If the men sinned, what was the sin of the women, what was the sin of the children, what was the sin of the cattle, the bulls and the donkeys. A divine voice answered: “Don’t try to be wiser than your Creator.” (adapted from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:16)
This midrash is evidence of the predicament posed by the Biblical story. The expectation of this midrash is that one should not second guess God’s commands, yet the very fact that this midrash exists indicates that the rabbis found God’s command difficult and the punishment of Saul equally problematic. Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish exegete and statesman, attempts to reconcile both the difficulty of the divine command and the harsh punishment of Saul. He asserts that the tribe of Amalek was a different kind of enemy than Israel had faced in the past. The tribe of Amalek did not border on Israel nor were the children of Israel a threat to them. Their sole purpose, according to Abrabanel, was to rebel against God by destroying God’s witnesses on earth. This was the justification for God’s command.
Abrabanel, the statesman, compares Saul’s punishment with that of David’s after the sin of Batsheva. He points out that David’s sin, on the face of it, appears to be much more serious than that of Saul. He concludes that Saul’s punishment was not the result of the rather minor infraction of not carrying out God’s command to the letter but rather it was the result of Saul’s following the people’s will rather than leading the people in the fulfillment of God’s will.
Neither of these interpretations ameliorate the difficulty of the dilemma which faced Saul. However those of us who live after September 11 may have a better understanding of the implications of God’s command to Saul.