Shabbat Zachor: Arrogance and Authority

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Zachor

This week is both the beginning of the book of Leviticus and also a special
Shabbat called Shabbat Zachor [Remember], which gets its name from a
short additional reading during the Torah service. The reading is from the
book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy, and describes the commandment to
remember Amalek, the evil people who attacked Israel’s stragglers along their
journey through the wilderness. Amalek is associated with Haman, the villain
of the Purim story, and so Shabbat Zachor always comes right before Purim is

Shabbat Zachor also has a special haftarah, or prophetic reading, and it’s a
very difficult text. Shaul [Saul], the first king of Israel, is told by the
Shmuel [Samuel] to attack the Amalekites and destroy them utterly, killing all
the people and even the animals. Shaul goes out to war, but doesn’t follow
Shmuel’s instructions: instead, he captures the king alive and takes the best of
the livestock as booty.

This disobedience to the letter of the commandment earns Shaul a rebuke
from Shmuel, who not only executes the captured king in cold blood but takes
the kingship from Shaul. Shmuel castigates Shaul harshly for not obeying the
instructions given to him:

“And Shmuel said, ‘You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the
tribes of Israel. The Lord anointed you king over Israel, and the Lord sent you
on a mission, saying, ‘Go and proscribe the sinful Amalekites; make war on
them until you have exterminated them.’ ‘ Why did you disobey the Lord and
swoop down on the spoil in defiance of the Lord’s will?” (1 Samuel 15:17-19)

This text is problematic on quite a few levels, defying our basic sense of
mercy and offending our moral commitment to avoid unnecessary bloodshed
and collective punishment (and never mind that the original command itself
comes close to our definition of genocide.) We will not solve all those sticky
issues today- a full study of the moral and theological issues in this week’s
haftarah would take up quite a bit of bandwidth. However, neither can I
dismiss the text as the product of a brutal age. The ancient rabbis gave us the
practice of reading this story once a year, and trusting as I do in their
collective wisdom, I think we need to “turn it and turn it again” until I can
Torah even in the middle of a bloody and cruel narrative.

One way to redeem texts which we find offensive is to place them in a larger
context. In this case, the Israelite nation is making the transition from tribal
chiefs to a single king – which they themselves wanted, in order to be be like
the other nations. Shaul, the first king of Israel, earns himself an
“impeachment” from Shmuel because he substituted his own judgment for the
Divine law which he was pledged to uphold. Rather than seeing himself as
subject to Torah law, as interpreted by the acknowledged prophet of the era
(Shmuel), Shaul overreached his authority, thus showing himself to be unfit to
wield the powers of state.

Now, let me be clear: in no way am I advocating total warfare as a normative
Jewish value, nor am I suggesting that religious law should be the basis for
the political structure of the Jewish or American communities.

However, having said that, I do see in this story a classic case of leadership
hubris: the king saw himself as the source of law, rather than the implementer
of it. In contemporary political language, it’s a cliché to distinguish between
“nation of laws” and a “nation of men,” but I think that’s a big part of the
point in
this story, and a very relevant issue in a world where political authorities
routinely, even brazenly attempt to place themselves above national and
international norms and well-defined laws.

We can struggle with the issues of warfare and bloodshed as presented in
this week’s haftarah while at the same time seeing in it a cautionary tale about
the moral and spiritual dangers inherent in assuming positions of great
authority. Shaul- like countless other kings, prime ministers, presidents,
CEO’s, and other powerful people- fell victim to the solipsistic arrogance of
office, forgetting that he was there only to serve the community and safeguard
its laws. Pick up any newspaper, and you’ll see that this arrogance persists;
contemporary religion, with its fundamental ethical commitments, must serve
as a counterweight to those who would commit the idolatry of
unaccountability, forgetting that the nature of leadership is to be servant of
wider community and its rightful institutions.

So why read this story now, right before Purim? Well, who was the most
despotic figure in our traditional texts? Probably Haman, whose utterly
narcissistic sense of self-importance led him to devise a plot to exterminate an
entire people based on a perceived slight to his honor. I don’t think anybody
ever meant to directly compare Shaul- whose mistake may have been mercy!
– to Haman, but if this haftarah is seen as a commentary on abusing the
powers of office (among other things), then at least we can see a theme
running through the Purim season. Curbing the abuses of arrogance, of
course, should be a basic mission of religion- one that we must never forget,
and not just on Shabbat Zachor.

PS- the full text of this week’s haftarah can be found here:

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