After writing a few days ago about Purim as a time when we confront our multifaceted, layered selves and are called to experiment with and explore our own personalities, I would like to raise another, similarly important aspect of Purim, which on some level directs us in the opposite direction.
Two days ago, on Shabbat Zachor, we read aloud the Torah portion containing the commandment never to forget, what Amalek did to us and to make sure to wipe out all memory of Amalek (DEU, 25:17-19):
זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ–וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים. וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה-אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח.
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.
Besides the ethical problem of commanding genocide, this short passage contains a logical contradiction in that it asks us to make sure to remember and not forget to wipe out the memory of Amalek. If we are commanded to remember a thing, how can we be made to wipe out the memory of that same thing?
In addition to the Torah portion, we also read about Amalek in the Haftorah (Shmuel 1, 15):
The prophet Shmuel receives the divine command to anoint Sha’ul as king over Israel in order to wipe out the Amalekites, including all men, women, children and possession. Sha’ul then goes to battle and triumphs over Amalek, but spares the king Agag and takes the cattle as spoil. G-D then instructs Shmuel to relate to Sha’ul that he has taken the crown from him.
So far so good. Again, morally outragous, but let’s for the moment ignore this.
What follows then is an unusually long and prosaic dialog between Shmuel and Sha’ul, in which Shmuel tries to make Sha’ul admit that he has sinned. What is interesting is that the author of the Tanakh seems to be much more interested in conveying the subtleties of Sha’ul’s reaction to Shmuel’s criticism than in the actual story line. So this is how the dialog progresses (in summary):
Shmuel goes looking for Sha’ul, only to find out that he is busy building a monument for himself:
- And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him: “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”
- And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”
- Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”
- Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Speak.”
- And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel.
And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’
Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”
- And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction.
But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”
- And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? … Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”
- Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.”
- And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. …”
- Then he said, “I have sinned; …”
In my eyes, this is one of the most brilliant lessons of failed leadership that I have ever heard. We know that Shmuel loved Sha’ul very much. When he came to look for him, Sha’ul sensed immediatly that something was wrong – and he knew exactly what it was. But instead of owning up for it, he pretends everything is fine. In German you call this “Flucht nach vorne”, or “Flight forwards”, meaning: instead of admitting a mistake, you make it seem as if it is a virtue.
Shmuel knows exactly what is going on, but he wants Sha’ul to admit it himself. Therefore he asks seemingly innocently: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears…?” – expecting Sha’ul to own up for his mistake.
Instead Sha’ul blames the people. At this point Shmuel can’t take it anymore and yells “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” – You have done wrong!”
How does Sha’ul react? “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord…. But the people took of the spoil…” – Still trying to blame the people!
After Shmuel relays to him that the crown will be taken from him, Sha’ul reluctantly admits: “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” – he still does not own up to his responsibility. It takes another round of rebuke from Shmuel until he finally says “I have sinned” without further assigning blame to anyone else.
To me, Sha’ul’s statement: “because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” is the crux. He was more concerned with the people’s opinion of him than doing what he was supposed to do. This is why his leadership failed. This is why his crown was “Sha’ul” (שאול) – borrowed. If you borrow something, you pretend to have it, but you don’t own it.
To me, one lesson of Sha’ul and Amalek, which relates to Purim is the following:
As elaborated in my last post, on the one hand we should recognize our layered characters and explore our complex personalities. We should be careful not to draw easy conclusions about ourselves and other people based on prejudices and oversimplifications.
But at the same time, we have to own up to our behavior. We have to reject moral relativism, where everything goes. There must be personal responsibility to perform our duties to society despite and because of our acceptance that everyone is different and unique. Just because the people demand something does not make it necessarily the right thing to do.
There is a certain contradiction here: Accept each others differences, but still hold each other responsible. Somehow this reminds me of the weird contradiction to simultaneously remember and forget. To me, the deeper lesson is to recognize that we always find ourselves suspended between two extremes:
Remember but also forget!
Own up to your duties, take responsibility and hold each other responsible, but also be forgiving, kind, tolerant and understanding of each other!
It is this dynamic, oscillating and almost uncomfortable movement between these extremes that Purim leaves us in. The important thing is to be aware of it. We must actively remember to forget and actively forget to remember. We must actively strive to make this world better and to wipe out evil where necessary, and simultaneously strive to be kind, tolerant and understanding.
The way to achieve this is to try and be honest with ourselves. On Purim, when we get to let loose of our rigid perceptions of our personalities, we get the opportunity to re-calibrate our lives according to standards that go beyond our everyday routines. We get to glimpse at ourselves from above and focus not on externals (what “the people” are thinking), but inwards. We ridicule external appearances, mask ourselves and get drunk, so we can focus on what lies beyond our routines and reevaluate all aspects of our lives: ourselves, family, friends, community, society and our respective responsibilities, rights and duties. It’s like a moral reset button.
Oftentimes David HaMelech is brought as a counterexample to Sha’ul’s failure. But I want to mention another, more recent leader who inspired me with her ethical determinism not to give in to the will of “the people”. A few weeks ago Angela Merkel gave a press conference on German TV where she explained and justified her decision to let many hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from the middle east, enter Germany. Among other things, one statement in particular caused a lot of commotion in the German press:
Ich muss ganz ehrlich sagen: Wenn wir jetzt anfangen, uns noch entschuldigen zu müssen dafür, dass wir in Notsituationen ein freundliches Gesicht zeigen, dann ist das nicht mein Land!
I have to say it in all honesty: If we now have to start apologizing for presenting a kind face in situations of emergency [plight/distress], then this is not my country!
Whether or not her policies are wise, time will tell. But in my book, this is a statement made by a real leader. Someone who did not lose her moral compass in the political jungle. Someone who is able to stay true to her calling even if it is widely unpopular and will almost certainly cost her politically.
May we be blessed with leaders that make their humanity their guiding principle. And may we and they be blessed with passion and compassion to make things better. זכור – Merke(l)!