July 19, 2024
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Parshat Vayikra
Shabbat Zachor

When, over the years, I had the privilege—and the challenge—of teaching this 15th perek of sefer Shmuel Aleph to young students, or upon I discussing this chapter with adults when it is read for parshat Zachor, I am often confronted with the question: Why did Hashem chastise the righteous King Saul with a most extreme punishment—that of removing him and his sons from the throne of Israel?

It is the most understandable question. Hashem, the “rachum vechannun—the merciful and compassionate God, reacts almost immediately to Shaul’s “misstep.” He—who was chosen by God and described as being “head and shoulders above the rest of the nation”—this modest leader who was reluctant to tell his family that he had been anointed king by the prophet; the Benjaminite who hid from the people when he was called to take the throne

Did he not deserve better treatment?

I have addressed this question in past articles and suggested a number of possible solutions. And yet, each year when studying this haftarah, I find that the same problem is still gnawing at me—with my possible solutions not quite as satisfying as they were when I suggested them. The question is exacerbated when we compare Hashem’s reaction to the sins for which He, through His prophet Natan, accused David HaMelech.

In the navi’s parable, he describes a situation where a wealthy man stole the one and only lamb from his impoverished neighbor, slaughtered the family’s “pet” and served it to a passing guest. Hearing this insensitive act of thievery, David angrily judged the man as being a “ben mahvet—one deserving of death! Natan responded to the king with two words: “Ata haish—you are that man!” explaining to David that his actions in taking the wife of Uriah and then sending Uriah to the front lines of battle to die, was tantamount to an act of murder! Yet, immediately after David responds to Natan’s harsh words, the navi tells him: “Hashem has forgiven your sin.”

Yes… God immediately forgave David HaMelech’s sin—one that had been equated to murder—and allowed both he and his future progeny to continue on the throne of Israel. But Hashem refused to forgive Shaul HaMelech for having destroyed only most of Amalek—and not its entirety! David was forgiven for a sin compared to murder; Shaul was punished for the sin of not killing enough! Are you not also perplexed?

So allow me to add yet another possible solution to those I’ve suggested in earlier writings. And, perhaps, the key to unraveling this problem lies not in the severity of the sin but in the sincerity of the penitence. It is true that God responds immediately to David—for after the prophet condemned his actions with but two words: “Ata haish,” David responded with but two words as well, saying, “Chatati laShem—I have sinned to God.” Two words that said everything. We hear no excuses from David: No denials, no “ifs,” no “buts;” only admission to his wrongdoing.

And what about Shaul? After the prophet Shmuel delivered Hashem’s words of condemnation for Shaul’s failure to follow God’s command, the first king of Israel responded:

  1. I did heed Hashem’s voice.

(a) I went on the mission upon which he sent me.

(b) I brought back the King of Amalek, Agag.

(c) I destroyed the nation of Amalek.

  1. The people (army) who took the sheep and cattle.

(a) (But) it was the first of the booty in order to sacrifice to God.

Only after Shmuel reprimanded him again, did Shaul finally recant and say: “Chatati—I sinned.” David’s remorse was issued in two words, Shaul’s regretful admission came only after 28 words of excuse and denial. So, whose response might God have considered as being more sincere? And whose response might He have seen as being more reluctant?

Recognizing one’s faults is a most difficult act—an act especially difficult for one in power. But only one who recognizes the One above will successfully lead others. It is a lesson our neviim teach us.

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

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