July 13, 2024
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To the Victor Belong the Spoils

Shabbat Zachor

Parshat Tetzave

This Shabbat before Purim requires us to read of our obligation to destroy Amalek, as the story of Purim came about through the machinations of Haman, a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek. Although the connection between the special Maftir this morning and its corresponding haftarah is easy to understand, the story related in the prophetic reading is deeply troubling.

The fulfillment of this obligation, incumbent upon Israel once she had settled in the land (our Maftir reading), was placed upon the shoulders of Israel’s first king hundreds of years later (our haftarah selection). Shaul does not hesitate to raise a large army (over 200,000 men) to fulfill God’s word but does fail in carrying out the command to “wipe out” the intractable enemy and destroy all of its possessions. He spares both the Amalekite king as well as their best of the sheep and cattle, allowing his soldiers to take them as spoils of war. Yet, Shaul, considered by Chazal to be a great tzadik, sees no failure at all. He greets the navi Shmuel with the words “I have fulfilled Hashem’s command!” When reprimanded by Shmuel for not following God’s specific demands, Shaul proclaims his innocence and repeats, “But I did listen to G-d and I did go on the mission upon which He sent me!” Shaul explains that he took nothing but merely allowed his men to take the animals in order to offer thanksgiving sacrifices to Hashem for their victory. It is then that Shmuel tells the king that God prefers submission to His will more than sacrifices and offerings and, due to this failing, Hashem will take the ruling power from Shaul and give it to another.

Although we might understand Shaul’s bowing to the pressure of his soldiers, we may be troubled by what seems to be the severe punishment exacted by God: the removal of Shaul’s sovereignty over Israel, both from him and his descendants. Why, after all, did Hashem regard this seeming misstep as an unforgivable sin? Why was this weakness shown by Shaul considered such a serious trespass against God? The answer is important and will help us understand the lesson veiled within the Purim story.

The quote “To the victor belong the spoils” (attributed to New York Senator William L. Marcy in 1829) expresses a simple truth: the one who is the victor takes the spoils of a battle. At specific times, it was essential that the people recognize that it is Hashem—not they—who had won the battle, Hashem Who was “the victor.” Hence, when Israel prays to God that they defeat the attacking Canaanite from Arad (Bamidbar 21), they tell God that they will take none of the spoils. Likewise, when Yehoshua began the conquest of the land with the victory over Yericho, in which the army did not even raise a sword against the enemy, Yehoshua demanded that they not touch the spoils, a way for them to realize that all of their future victories in conquering the land are also Hashem’s victories. And so, when Israel went out to fulfill the Torah’s command regarding Amalek, it had to be clear to them that this was not a war of conquest or even a war of revenge; in fact, it wasn’t even their war! “Milchama Lashem ba’Amalek,” God tells Moshe (Shemot 17:16); it was Hashem’s war against Amalek—and His victory. Taking the spoils of this war was an act that denied God’s involvement in the victory and proclaimed that Israel was the victor! Such an act of subversion could not be forgiven and proved Shaul unfit for his elevated post.

So take note: When, centuries later, a descendant of Shaul, Mordechai, stood against Haman, the descendant of Agag, king of Amalek, he saw that the Jews had learned that lesson. For Achashverosh had told them “ush’lalam lavoz,” that they make take the booty, and yet, not once nor twice, but a full three times, the Megilla states: “Uvabiza lo shalchu et yadam,” the Jews refused to take the spoils of war. They knew full well that the victory was not theirs but God’s Who stood behind them in war as He did with every event throughout the Megilla.

Recognizing Hashem’s involvement in our lives and thanking Him for His help is an essential character trait for all. It is something we must never overlook nor forget. It is something we must always remember.

Hence, zachor!

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler

 

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