The story of Israel’s first king occupies the bulk of Sefer Shmuel A, stretching from his anointment in the ninth perek until his death during the battle against the Plishtim in the 31st perek, the final chapter. Interestingly, throughout the year, we only read three episodes from these chapters: this week’s story of Saul’s (third) anointing (perek 11-12), the story of Saul’s war against Amalek (perek 15) read on Parshat Zachor, and the haftarah of “Machar Chodeh” (perek 20), which is read when Rosh Chodesh occurs on Sunday.
In a certain way, the fact that only a few selections touching upon the life of Shaul are read is quite unfortunate. For the bulk of our communities who are most familiar with the navi text from the haftarah readings, the impression we receive about Israel’s first king from these three selections is hardly positive. This week’s haftarah mentions Shaul’s consecration in the very first three verses of the reading, while the remaining 22 (!) pesukim relate Shmuel’s warnings to the people to remain faithful to Hashem. We learn almost nothing about Shaul in this reading.
The episode of Shaul’s war against Amalek focuses primarily on the king’s failure to properly carry out God’s command. The harsh words issued to him by Shmuel and Hashem’s decision to remove the ruling power from him and his descendants are the things that remain in our memories. And of course, the haftarah of Machar Chodesh that tells of David’s need to escape the wrath of an unstable Shaul certainly doesn’t leave us with positive feelings toward the man that Chazal speak of as a “tzaddik.”
So let us review some of what we do not read on Shabbat in order to get a more favorable—and just—opinion of Shaul.
After over 300 years with no single national leader, the nation accepts God’s chosen candidate and, as a result, Shaul steps into a post last occupied by Yehoshua. The tribal leaders who succeeded in removing the threats from foreign powers were just that—tribal leaders. The nation had not yet been united enough to choose a king. Indeed, the Torah speaks of the mitzvah to appoint a king as a response to the request of the people (Devarim 17; 14-15). And up until then, the people made no such request. A naturally humble man, Shaul nonetheless steps up to his position by successfully demanding that able-bodied men join him in defending the Israelite town of Yavesh Gilad from the threat of Ammon. His victory against the enemy was a result of his ability to gather 330,000 fighters from a people that had not united in battle for hundreds of years! And, by doing so, Shaul raised Israel’s first standing army since the time of Yehoshua. A standing army that could now repel enemy threats.
Shaul, with an untried and weaponless army, courageously faces a far more powerful Philistine force and, through Hashem’s help, defeats them. He wars against the Moav, Ammon, Edom, Tzovah and the Plishtim—and defeats them. The text puts it succinctly: “U’v’chol asher yifneh—yarshi’a,” “Wherever he turned he inspired terror.”
Shaul’s life turned around after his failure to follow God’s clear command to destroy everything that belonged to Amalek. But we should not ignore the fact that he did wage a war, endangering his life, in order to fulfill Hashem’s directive. The last half of the Shaul story is really the David story. And it surely is, for the events of Shaul’s later years mirrored those of David. As Hashem withdrew His spirit from Saul, David’s successes and popularity grew. The “ruach ra’ah,” the melancholy spirit, or, perhaps, the manic depression, that took hold of the first king of Israel is mirrored by the growing spirit of God that filled David’s successes in his later years and prevents us from judging or criticizing his behavior. And yet, he died on the battlefield, defending his people. That is known as dying “al Kiddush Hashem.”
And, if nothing else, that alone would explain why the rabbis call him “Shaul HaTzaddik.”
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.