Parshat Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zahor
(1 Samuel 15:1-34)
March 7, 2009
11 Adar 5769
Shabbat Zachor falls on the Shabbat before Purim. On this Shabbat, we read for the haftarah the story of King Saul and his disregard for fulfilling the command to destroy the Amalekite nation and its property in its entirety by sparing its livestock to sacrifice to God and the Amalekite king, Agag, out of fealty for royalty. These infractions were linked to the Torah\’s command to annihilate the nation of Amalek and to the story of Purim whose villain, Haman is a descendent of this tribe.
Saul\’s violation of God\’s command and the prophet Samuel\’s response to his behavior showcase a number of serious religious conflicts embedded in this story. Life is never simple and easy. All serious decisions ultimately face conflicting interests. Saul uses his prerogative as king to make decisions, a necessary aspect of his leadership, yet is confronted by the prophet for his independence. Saul was chosen as king for his humility, yet what leader can survive without taking on the mantel of leadership.
Saul wants to follow God\’s path and observe His commandments, but he also wants to do right by God. What could be a greater service to God than to offer the Amalekite livestock as a sacrifice before God? Service or subservience? Which takes precedence? Samuel challenged Saul on this point and demanded from Saul the king to humble himself before God, his Master. Samuel demanded values over worship. This is no small debate in the religious world. On this debate, Saul\’s leadership teeters on the precipice.
He is further entrapped by this decision. Saul took upon himself the leadership of the people. This decision was his to make as king. But, as king, the responsibility for the decision rested in his hands. Yet, when he was called to take responsibility for his decision, he attempted to avoid responsibility by placing the blame on the popular will. When faced by responsibility, he ducked it, a tragic victim of the trappings of power.
Ultimately more than the storyline itself, the nature of leadership is the theme of this story. Leadership is a conflicted commodity. Is leadership simply a matter of following the rules or is it much more? Does the leader have the right to set an agenda above and beyond the rules? Must a leader take responsibility for his or her actions or is the status of the position more important? These are some of the issues that this story evokes.