War, Leadership and Morality: The Memory of Amalek

The haftorah (prophetic reading) for Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim) presents a debate between Shmuel Hanavi (Samuel the prophet) and Shaul Hamelech (Saul the king), a debate about how to conduct war:

Once Shaul’s army has killed enemy troops and even civilians, should Shaul order the troops to kill the king and all the sheep too?

Shaul says “no.”

Shmuel says “yes.”

Shaul follows the rules set out in Vayikra-Leviticus; Shmuel follows the rules set out in Devarim-Deuteronomy. But there is more at stake in this debate than competing Torah traditions.

In the debate, Shmuel gets the last word, and the last action. And, being a prophet, he gets to say that he is representing God. So at first glance it looks like he has won the debate. Or, rather, the narrator has positioned him so that it looks like he has won the debate.

But I’m not settling for a “first glance.” And I’m not accepting the view that God wants total war. No one claims that the book of Shmuel is divinely written, so I am well within my rights as a reader to analyze it as a piece of literature. And I think that this selection is actually a piece of political philosophy.

Many of you have read one or more of Plato’s dialogues. Here is how they go: two or four or eight people discuss a philosophical topic. The main character is always the philosopher Socrates, and Socrates always gets the last word. People who are new to reading Plato believe that the views expressed by the character Socrates are the views of the author, Plato. But that is actually not true. All the views expressed by all the characters are Plato’s views. He wouldn’t even be writing the dialogue if it weren’t occurring in his mind.

That’s how I think of haftarat Shabbat Zachor: a philosophical debate that raises four key questions.

(1) What is the proper balance of chesed (compassion) and din (judgment) in power politics?

(2) What is the fate of animals unwittingly caught in the human crossfire?

(3) What leadership model should a king follow?

(4) What is the source of morality?

The debate unfolds through a story.

Shmuel conveys to Shaul God’s command: Years ago, Amalek attacked your weak civilians and now it’s time for payback. Place Amalek under cherem, which in the language of Torah means “wage a war of total annihilation.”  To understand why, you have to know the special Torah reading for Shabbat Zachor, from Devarim-Deuteronomy. Amalek, it tells us, doesn’t fear God, that is, has no national conscience. Amalek attacked the weakest of the Israelites when the Israelites were at their weakest, fleeing from slavery. And Amalek did this for no particular tactical advantage or territorial advantage.  Thus, Moshe tells the people, when you are finally settled in the land and at peace with local nations, you must wipe out the memory of Amalek.

In Shmuel’s mind, a person fit to be king should be able to carry out this kind of mission. A king should not give in to natural feelings of compassion. A king should make absolute orders and enforce them. A king should do it right the first time, because there’s no forgiveness or second chance in the political arena.

But Shaul does not believe in total annihilation. He sets some boundaries around the war. He clears the area of foreign nationals, people who have no stake in the conflict. And he allows himself to feel pity, for a fellow king and for the beautiful sheep and for their little baby lambs. After all, aren’t the sheep like foreign nationals, caught in a conflict that has nothing to do with them?

Shaul believes in a form of collaborative leadership. Not every decision is his – he allows his officers some discretion in the field. Three times he explains why the sheep were spared. Twice he simply states “the people spared the sheep.” In this context, “the people” means “the troops,” as they are the only people alive in the area. Shaul simply states this, as though it should be self-evident that the field commanders have some authority. Bus Shmuel doesn’t get it, so the third time he speaks of it, he explains his leadership philosophy, saying, “I respected the people.”

Shaul seems to believe that Shmuel transmits God’s word faithfully and accurately. Yet, for Shaul, God’s commandment is not a morally strong enough reason to let go of his compassion. God’s commandment has to be weighed against other moral compasses, like the gut feelings that well up in Shaul’s body, the conventions of ethical warfare that Shaul has learned, and the views of Shaul’s trusted colleagues.

Shmuel makes it clear that he disapproves of all of Shaul’s actions: his pity for the king, his sparing of the sheep, his listening to the troops, his audacious tempering of God’s command. And he rebukes Shaul heavily. Shaul apologizes, even humiliating himself in the process, but Shmuel does not forgive him. Shmuel explains that there is no second chance, and consents only to accompany Shaul for the sake of appearances.

That’s the debate in the context of the story. If it were a purely philosophical debate, it might look something like this:

Shmuel: To succeed in politics, a king must be ruthless.

Shaul:  I would also measure my success by ethical standards.

Shmuel: A king can’t worry about other people. You must give absolute orders.

Shaul: I rely on my assistants; I’m interdependent with them; I trust their judgment. We have a better team if they can make some decisions.

Shmuel: You have to think of yourself more like you think of God. God’s commandment is absolute; yours should be too.

Shaul: But I don’t believe that God’s commandment is absolute. I think it has to pass some other moral tests before we accept it.

Shmuel: I think our differences are irreconcilable. I’m responsible for appointing the kings in this land, and you do not fit my model of a king, so you are out!

Shmuel explains that he is expressing God’s view. He tells Shaul, “God has rejected you as king. God is not a human being like you, who has regrets.”  But, according to the story, just the night before God said to Shmuel, “I regret.” Does Shmuel accurately convey the word of God? I don’t think so! Is the narrator calling you to take a second glance at the moral of the story? I do think so! Shmuel’s voice falters here, making room for Shaul’s voice.

Traditional midrash goes to some lengths to support Shmuel’s view that God’s command should be absolute. According to one midrash, King Shaul questions the order to kill women, children, and animals. A bat kol (a heavenly voice) calls out, “Don’t try to be more righteous or more wise than God!” According to another midrash, the sheep that Shaul spares are actually Amalekite men in disguise  — actually, Amalekite magicians who transfigured themselves into sheep. A mere mortal like Shaul could not have known this. Shaul’s independent judgment leads him astray.

Contemporary Jewish philosophy, however, supports Shaul all the way. Philosophers brag about Jewish tradition’s insistence that God’s commands pass ethical and rational tests. Traditional scholars speak of mishpatim, God’s ethical commandments that have passed the test of reason and chukim, God’s ritual commandments that speak to us on a non-rational level. If an ethical commandment does not pass the test, we do not follow it – although the process of testing can take hundreds and thousands of years!

I have to side with the philosophers – not just because they are philosophers. There is another reason. If we were to follow Shmuel’s line of thinking, we would become like Amalek. We would expect our leaders to be authoritarian, unbending, and ruthless. We would become capable of unquestioningly following ruthless orders. We would, as one midrash implies, become capable of transforming ourselves into sheep – the kind of herd that turns like a single body as soon as the leader turns. If the leader said, attack civilians, and gave no coherent reason, soldiers would all do it and voters would all support it, no questions asked. That is not, thank God, the world I live in, and it is not the world I want to live in.

That’s why our Hasidic teachers explain that the true meaning of the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek” is to develop a keen spiritual and ethical awareness. This way, even when questions of war aren’t pressing, we continuous search our hearts for traces of hate, indifference, or fear that could trigger the Amalek inside us. Some of our Hasidic teachers side with Shaul, because he searches his own heart.

This haftorah puts right in our faces some horrifying questions that have not gone away since the time of Shmuel and Shaul. Some scholars say that the commandment to wipe out the Amalek within us won’t be fulfilled until the time of Mashiach – so for now, we need to keep working.

Megillat Esther also puts in our faces some horrifying scenes: King Achashverosh’s treatment of women; Haman’s lust for power; and, given Shushan’s crazy system of irrevocable laws, Esther and Mordechai having no choice but to kill their enemies before their enemies kill them. We need to reflect on these too. That’s what Shabbat Zachor is for, to remember and reflect.

But at your Purim celebration, just have a good time.

Image: awordfrommalachi.com

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