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Tzav 5771

Haftarah Parshat Tzav
Shabbat Zakhor
(1 Samuel 15:2-34)
March 19, 2011
13 AdarII 5771

The storyline for this special haftarah for the Shabbat which precedes Purim is a provocative one. It relates the episode where King Saul was supposed to carry out God’s command to extirpate the tribe of Amalek. Saul does not heed this command entirely, leaving the king, Agag, and the prize livestock alive. He is consequently berated by Samuel the prophet, who informs him that God has decided to wrest the monarchy from him and give it to someone else. This haftarah obviously stresses the importance of obeying God’s commands, as is evidenced by Samuel’s words to Saul: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Surely obedience is better than sacrifice; compliance than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim. Because you rejected the Lord’s command, He has rejected you as king.” (22-23)

God’s preference for obedience over sacrifices is understandable. The equation of Saul’s acts with rebellion and the resultant comparison with divination and idolatry is less comprehensible. Targum Jonathan, the Aramaic translation of the Prophets, “explains” verse 23 this way: “For like the guilt of a person who inquires in divination, so is the guilt of a person who refuses to fulfill the words of the Torah; and like the guilt of those people who seek after idols, so is the sin of those who diminish or add onto the words of the prophets. Just as you loathe the words of God so will He distance you from being king.” Rashi, who quotes this interpretation, understands it to mean that the punishment for disobeying God should be the same as the punishment for worshiping idols.

Rabbi David Kimche is more nuanced in his interpretation of the Targum: “Like the sin of divination which is a great sin, since it denies trust in God and lends trust to divination, so, too, is rebellion an enormous sin, since God’s mouth taught and he (Saul) does not do what God commanded him. For by transgressing God’s commandment; it is as if he denies God and has removed his trust in Him. It is as if he says: God does not have the power to do good or bad, therefore there is no reason to fear transgressing His commandments.” (adapted translation)

For Kimche, Saul’s infraction was a breach of faith because it implied a lack of trust in God. He assumed that once a person ignores God’s commandments, it means that the person no longer assumes a relationship with God. Although I am not sure that any of us would want this particular episode to be the testing ground for this idea, still Kimche’s interpretation is an idea worth pondering especially since it is so at odds with the attitude of many people in the modern world. Is “commandedness” a necessary ingredient in the Jewish tradition? For Kimche, this sad story about King Saul would seem to suggest it is.

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.

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