Monday, February 25, 2002
Starting in media res, some thoughts on Purim.
On Shabbat Zachor, we read a haftarah describing Saul's battle against the Amalekites. Saul is instructed by Samuel to utterly annihilate the Amalekites - men, women, children, even cattle and property are to be destroyed. The reason? During the wandering in the desert, Amalek attacked Israel from the rear - preying on the weak like a predatory animal. For this, Amalek is named an eternal enemy of Israel, and Israel is commanded never to forget to wipe out their memory.
Saul vanquishes the Amalekites, but spares the best of their property as well as their king, Agag, as spoils of war. When confronted with this, Saul excuses himself by saying that he planned to offer this booty as a sacrifice to God. But Samuel is having none of it. He declares that God desires obedience rather than sacrifices, and that Saul has forfeited the kingship by his disobedience. We read this haftarah on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman (yimach shemo), the villain of the Megillah of Esther read at Purim, is the descendant of Agag, and the embodiment of the evil that opposes itself to Israel in every generation.
This looks like a pretty simple story, if a bloodthirsty one. But there are complications. What is the sin that Saul committed, for which he loses the kingship? Is it for sparing the property and the life of Agag? No, say the rabbis; it is for mass murder. For the only possible justification Saul could have had for making genocidal warfare was a direct command from God. Once it could be established that Saul was not, in fact, obeying that command, then he was guilty of genocide.
What is the significance of this argument? The things of God operate at a meta-rational level. God makes and unmakes whole worlds; it is certainly within His power, and His right, to destroy a nation or elevate it. But that kind of power is not vested with human beings. We must make decisions on a rational level. In the days of prophecy, some chosen individuals had direct access to that meta-rational level, but we do not.
(To quote my wife's favorite rabbi Leonard Cohen, on modern would-be Abrahams:
You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.)
Saul's sin was in thinking that God had raised him to a meta-rational level, able to go beyond good and evil and do what seemed right in his own eyes, regardless of God's command. And so he is punished not for what he failed to do - kill Agag and destroy his property - but for what he did: murder innocent women and children as part of a genocidal war.
God's commands to us come in two forms: rational and non-rational. But even the non-rational commands (kashrut, for example) are for our own good. To the extent we are able, we should obey even if we do not understand, both for the simple reason that we are commanded and because in obeying we may come to understand. But this does not absolve us of the use of reason. For these non-rational commands are not anti-rational. We are not commanded to abandon our moral reason, because we do not have direct access to the divine voice and we must nonethless somehow come to understand God's commands. We must interpret scripture in a moral light, because we must interpret it, and there is no more godly light available to us. If we forget this, and think we are prophets, we will use the license of scripture to pursue our selfish interests by immoral means, as Saul did. And this could cause God to regret our election, as he did Saul's, with consequences too terrible to contemplate.
Another lesson: Saul specifically spares Agag. Why? Perhaps because he is ransomable, and therefore valuable. Or perhaps because he is a king, and Saul, as a king, wants to reinforce the notion that kings are a special class of being who should not be killed. But it is precisely this special status that Samuel continually objects to, from the first murmurings of the people of their desire for a monarchy. God is the only true king; earthly kings are just leaders, instruments of the people and, like all people, instruments of God in history.
Today, Israel faces an enemy who behaves as a son of Agag would - preying on the weak among his own people and in Israel, plotting destruction and perverting the legitimate grievances of his people. Should Israel continue to protect him from retaliation, because he is potentially valuable, or because he has the imprimatur of being a head of state, while his people and ours suffer from a war waged against the weak and defenseless?