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Tetzaveh 5773

Haftarah Parshat Tetzaveh
Shabbat Zakhor
(1 Samuel 15:1-34)
February 23, 2013
13 AdarI 5773

The prophet Samuel’s relationship with King Saul was, at the very least, a complicated affair. He was responsible for choosing him to be king. He was also deeply involved in Saul’s tragic downfall. The final confrontation between these two larger than life characters was over Saul’s inability to carry out the divine command to annihilate the forces of his nation’s arch-enemy, King Agag. Samuel’s confrontation with Saul over this failure to heed God’s command was both tragic and dramatic. Samuel informed Saul that God would wrest his title from him and give it to someone else. This event is captured in a deeply symbolic act: “As Samuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe and it tore.” (15:27)

Who tore whose robe? The New Jewish Publication Society translation makes it clear that it was Saul who tore Samuel’s robe. (This seems to be the p’shat or plain meaning of the story.) The verse itself, however, does not make this explicit since the definite article is left ambiguous. The midrashic tradition, of course, picks up on this ambiguity, examining the significance of the different possibilities, much like a story where the author presents his or her audience with different possible endings: “The corner of whose robe? Rav and Levi. One said: ‘The corner of Saul’s robe,’ and the other said: ‘The corner of Samuel’s robe.’ Said Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani: ‘It would seem [that Samuel tore] the corner of his own robe, since it is the manner of the righteous to be disheartened when that which they planted does not flourish.’” (Midrash Samuel 18:5 Lifshitz ed. p. 61)

The plain meaning of this verse, where Saul tears Samuel’s robe is easily understood. Saul was anxious for Samuel to accompany him to the celebratory sacrifices over the victory against Agag to indicate to the people that he has Samuel’s support. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani’s staging is explained within the framework of the midrash. How are we to explain why Samuel would tear Saul’s garment? Here, Rashi offers an explanation: “He offered him a sign namely, that the one who would tear his garment would replace him as king.” (See 1 Samuel 24:4, based on Midrash Tehillim 57:3)

Personally, as a teacher, I am most intrigued by the interpretation of Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani. The prophet Samuel was Saul’s teacher and advocate. He recruited him and anointed him as king. How great his disappointment must have been when Saul did not live up to the challenges of his position. As Saul’s mentor, Saul’s triumphs were his triumphs and Saul’s failures were his as well. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani intuited in his interpretation that to be a teacher or mentor is not so different from being a parent.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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