Vayikra Zachor 5784

The Haftarah that is read for Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim) is taken from the First Book of Samuel and begins with God telling Saul ”I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt” (I Samuel 15:2). Saul was told to kill Agag (the Amalekite king) and destroy all of Agag’s possessions. While Saul does carry out his duties to an extent, he does not kill the king and he spares the finest of the animals and other items of high value.

As referred to in the opening verses, the link to this week’s Maftir (extra portion) for Shabbat Zachor is the cowardly act of the Amalekites spoken about at the end of Deuteronomy Chapter 25. Our tradition teaches us that Haman, the evil protagonist in Megillat Esther, which we read on Purim, is a descendent of Amalek – the people whose despicable attack on the Israelites we are to remember, but whose existence we “shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19).

Although Saul had been given explicit instructions to kill Agag and destroy all of his possessions, the text records that Saul did not destroy all of the possessions (here referring to the livestock), but rather he saved the choicest and best animals, killing only “what was cheap and worthless” (I Samuel 15:9).

Upon learning of this, Samuel is distressed and he approaches Saul, who comes to greet him claiming that he had fulfilled God’s command. 

The tone of Samuel’s reaction could easily be found in a Purim Spiel, almost as if it were written for such purposes. “‘Then what,’ demanded Samuel, ‘is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of oxen that I hear?’” (1 Samuel 15:14) – you should probably read that line with a healthy dose of derision and scepticism.

Undeterred by this challenge, Saul simply replies that he saved the best of these animals to be offered as sacrifices to God. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz comments; “Saul justified their (his army) actions by saying that even if they did not fully obey the instructions, their intentions were for the sake of Heaven”

Saul’s reactions and attempts at justification do not represent those of a king or other position of power. He failed to understand the full responsibility of his office, to accept and carry out necessary duties, especially as was the case here where the instructions came directly from God. 

However, there is a far greater issue in Saul’s disjointed behaviour – he is not genuine in his repentance, at first not accepting that he had done wrong, then when it was explained to him, he produced a range of excuses for his behaviour that kept demonstrating his lack of sincere remorse for his actions and his inability to understand the severity of the situation, especially considering the reasons for the task he was given.

Through his failure to act in the appropriate manner Saul not only let himself down, but he also disappointed and angered those who had until then provided the strongest support – God and Samuel. His inability to genuinely accept responsibility also let down those who revered him as their king.

Effective leadership requires an understanding of the whole picture and when agreeing to the mission, the confidence and belief to carry out the instructions given. It is also necessary to acknowledge that actions and inactions have ramifications not only for ourselves but for those around us too.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Sam Zwarenstein

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