June 16, 2024
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Shabbat Zachor

Parshat Tetzaveh

The haftarah this Shabbat Zachor is the well-known story told in Sefer Shmuel I of King Shaul’s battle against Amalek, a war he was commanded to pursue in fulfillment of the mitzvah we read in the maftir this morning. Given the moral sensitivities of modern-day man (perhaps an overstatement, given the mass slaughter of innocent human beings man has been guilty of over the past 100 years, nonetheless…), this story is a difficult one to make peace with. The demand to “erase the very memory” of Amalek included killing the entire human population as well as the cattle of that nation some 400 years after their dastardly attack on Bnei Yisrael. Many have dismissed the immoral implications of such actions by remembering that this was acceptable given the moral standards of the ancient world. After all, some explain, there was much violence depicted in the Tanach and, perhaps, these actions must be judged according to those standards.

We, however, do not judge or “rationalize” Hashem’s mitzvot. We understand that He who created the moral code and demanded adherence to it commands only ethical directives—although we may not always understand them. And we also know that such an “extreme” act could only be undertaken at God’s direct command, as no human being may take upon his shoulders the responsibility of destroying others or killing “innocents.” And this understanding was precisely what escaped King Shaul.

The Talmud in Yoma (22b) tells us that it is not only modern man who struggles to understand this command; Shaul as well struggled with it. “If the murder of one individual requires us to follow the entire ritual of eglah arufa (Devarim 21:1-9) to find the murderer, how much more so all of these souls!” he said. “And if human beings had sinned, what did the cattle do? What did the children do?” Shaul questioned Hashem’s command given through the navi Shmuel. But rather than beseech God for an explanation, he kills the people but extends his mercies to the animals, sparing the best cattle for his soldiers as booty from the war.

Hashem desires man to be troubled by what he regards as immoral. It is essential for the creation of an ethical personality and a moral society. However, he must also understand his own limitations in attempting to explain Hashem’s ways. Throughout the Tanach we read of Amalekite bands attacking innocents and profiting from their slaughter. The Amalek of Shaul’s time was no different than the Amalek of Moshe’s time. And essential to building an ethical world is the requirement to destroy pure evil. Man cannot ignore philosophies or nations that kidnap, murder or behead, and expect to create a moral society, a world prepared for God’s dominion.

And, perhaps, that is why He would command that which we don’t understand.

It is that lesson Hashem wants us to remember.

And it is that we are charged not to forget.

ZACHOR!

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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