What is right?

The lesson of a great King, that truth and logic are also servants of Hashem

By: Dovid Samuels

“Remember what the people of Amalek did to you on the path as you left Egypt”[1]: They were the first tribe brazen enough to attack the Jewish people after their miraculous and spectacular exodus from Egypt. For this reason, we are commanded to obliterate the memory of this nation from the world. We read about Amalek on Shabbos Zachor, the Shabbos next to Purim, because on Purim we were given another taste of what Amalek wishes to do to us. The evil Haman, mastermind of a plot to wipe out every single Jew, was from the tribe of Amalek. But how did the tribe survive for so long, when we have a commandment to wipe them out? The answer is recorded in the book of Shmuel[2], where we are told of a very puzzling event.

The Prophet Shmuel, a wholly righteous man, commands King Shaul to wage war against the tribe of Amalek, and show no mercy. Everything should be erased from the world, even their livestock. With hundreds of thousands of men, King Shaul followed the command of the Prophet, and waged a war against Amalek in the valley. Over a vast swathe of land, Shaul’s men struck Amalek a fearsome blow, sparing only King Agag, the leader of Amalek, and some livestock from the sword. King Shaul went to the Prophet and told him that he had fulfilled the will of Hashem. Shmuel, already aware that Shaul had not properly fulfilled the command, asked: “What is the sound of cattle that I hear?” Shaul replied that the people took pity on the livestock and wished to offer them as sacrifices to Hashem. To this, Shmuel rebukes Shaul and declares that he did not follow the will of Hashem, as he was told to destroy everything. Shaul again replies that he did act according to Hashem’s will, and he only kept the animals alive as sacrificial offerings. “Does Hashem take pleasure in sacrifices in exchange for obedience?” queries Shmuel. “Because you have rejected Hashem, He has rejected you as king!” King Shaul then replies, “I have sinned, for I feared the people, and heeded their voice.”

Because of this transgression, the bloodline of Amalek persisted, and finally erupted in Shushan, with the diabolical plan of Haman. But how could King Shaul have made this error? How could he have gone against the words of the Prophet and the command of Hashem?

To begin to understand the actions of King Shaul, we need to firstly understand that King Shaul was an unbelievably great man. He was chosen to be the first king of the Jewish people, and there was none in the generation like him. Upon his death he was granted a place in heaven with the Prophet Shmuel. He is made to look wicked, but it was the way of the Prophet to speak harshly and to emphasise the mistakes of great men, in order that they should achieve an even higher level of perfection. That being said, what was Shaul thinking when he left King Agag alive?

Our Sages[3] give us an extra insight into what was motivating Shaul: The verse tells us he made war in the valley. When Hashem told him to kill Amalek, Shaul said: “If for one death we are commanded to bring a calf as atonement in a valley, how much more so should we be concerned for all these lives? And if the adults sinned, what did the children do?” To this, a Heavenly Voice came out and said: “Don’t be too much of a tzaddik.[4]” It seems Shaul was making a logical argument to justify his actions, and it was for this reason that he preserved the lives of Agag and the livestock. But on closer inspection, it doesn’t quite add up. Firstly, the law of bringing the calf in atonement for a dead body found between two cities is only applicable to a Jewish victim. Amalek were not Jews. Furthermore, an argument such as this cannot be used to contradict the Torah when it explicitly commands us to kill Amalek. Thirdly, if Shaul was using this principle to save the lives of Amalek, why didn’t he just bring a verse in the Torah which forbids murder? Also, Shaul was apparently trying to save everyone with this law, if not adults, then at least the children. But in the end he only saved one man, King Agag. If his logic was sound, he should have saved everyone, and if not, he should have killed everyone! Lastly, why did Shaul blame his action on his fearing and heeding the request of the people. After all, he apparently had his own logic to justify his actions, and it is a matter of law that the people do as the king says, not the other way around.

The Torah tells us[5] that the war with Amalek will be from one generation to another. Our Sages[6] explain that the war with Amalek will last forever, and will only be finally won in the future with the coming of Moshiach. So, in effect, the future redemption and the obliteration of Amalek will happen at the same time. Therefore, when Shaul was commanded to wipe out Amalek, he was actually being told to bring the final redemption. But King Shaul, being the holy man that he was, understood that the time for redemption had not arrived. This posed two major problems for him: Firstly, we are taught[7] that the Jewish people made an oath to Hashem that we would not do actions that will force an early redemption. Secondly, a redemption which is brought forward brings terrible risks and tribulations for the Jewish people. Like a premature childbirth, there can be serious ramifications for mother and child, likewise, for the Jews, there would be tragedies and travails which would carry a very high cost. This, too, King Shaul saw with Divine sight; the perils that would await the Jewish people if he would bring about an early redemption. And like a Jewish King should, he worried, not only for the Jews alive at that time, but for the countless Jews that would suffer in the future due to an untimely redemption.

With this, we can perhaps understand Shaul’s logic in sparing King Agag. His argument was not to save Amalek out of mercy for them. That’s impossible. He was told by the Prophet and Hashem Himself not to have mercy on them. Rather, he was arguing for the sake of the Jewish people. His logic was sound: If I kill Amalek now, it will bring the redemption, but I know that this is not the time for the final redemption, so it will bring untold suffering to the people. And if for one Jewish life we bring an atonement, all the more so for all of these lives!

He wasn’t committing murder, but he would indirectly cause suffering and death to Jews in the future, which closely resembles the laws of the offering brought for a man found dead between two cities. This also explains why Shaul defended himself by claiming to have been acting out of fear for the people. It wasn’t that he was coerced by the people to keep the animals alive. He was the King; they follow his command! Rather, he was fearful for the sake of the people; those that would suffer as a result of his actions in prematurely bringing the redemption. This was hinted to in his statement, “And if the adults sinned, what did the children do?” Again, this is not referring to Amalek, for in the end he never saved adults or children from them, except Agag. Instead, he was dealing with the reality of Jewish children suffering for nothing, which we as a people have seen all too often, and wouldn’t have happened if he’d killed all of Amalek.

We are told[8] that the Jewish people only fully accepted the Torah out of love during the Purim miracle. King Shaul would have known that Haman would be the catalyst for the level of Jewish perfection, as we are taught[9] that Megillas Esther was given to Moshe at Har Sinai, and would have been taught to the leaders of the generations that followed. So, he decided to keep one Amaleki alive, and bring sacrifices to atone for not being ready to see a final redemption.

Who could have asked for a more concerned and loving King, constantly considering the benefit of his people, present and future, even in the heat of battle? So, what exactly was wrong with his logic? With this, we learn a fundamental lesson in serving Hashem, and we learn it from Avraham Avinu[10]. When Avraham was about to sacrifice his precious son Yitzchak at the Akeida, the Satan told him that he’d heard that, in truth, Hashem wants the ram as a sacrifice, not his son. To which Avraham replied: “This is your punishment: even when you tell the truth, we don’t believe you!” A perplexing response. Avraham was saying that even though the Satan was telling the truth, and Hashem didn’t want his son to die, as was evident at the end of the story, he still wouldn’t listen to him. The message is this: Hashem wants me to do a certain act. Even though it goes against logic and truth, I will still do it. In the end, Hashem made him stop, and his son lived, but in order for that to happen, Avraham had to show that he was willing to serve Hashem, despite all logics and arguments to the contrary.

Similarly, Shaul had a paradox. If he kills Agag, the Jews will be in trouble. We know that Eliyahu will herald the Moshiach, and there was no Eliyahu, so Shaul knew that it must not be the right time for the redemption. So, he disobeyed the Prophet. But then he was rebuked! What should he have done? The answer: do as the Prophet of Hashem says. He is above your logic, and above your reason, no matter how sound and true they may be. In the end, if the Jewish people needed that there be a man called Haman, born of Amalek, who would bring them to a higher level of Torah acceptance, then Hashem would make a plan, just like He did with Avraham and Yitzchak. We are without prophets, but we have our Sages, and each generation has its leaders. Sometimes we have logic, and sometimes we have facts, but what we have to do, in spite of it all, is the Will of Hashem. “Don’t be too much of a tzaddik”, was Heaven’s response to Shaul. A tzaddik he was, driven by his sense of truth, but even “truth” is subservient to the Will of Hashem.

  1. Devarim 25:17
  2. 1:16; Haftora on Parshas Zachor
  3. Yuma 22b
  4. Proverbs 7:16
  5. Shemos 17:16
  6. Mechilta
  7. Kesubos 111a
  8. Megillah 7a
  9. Yerushalmi Megillah 1:5
  10. Sanhedrin 99b

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