Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tetzaveh-Zakhor (Haftarah)

TETZAVEH: The Temple According to Ezekiel

The regular haftarah for this parshah is from Ezekiel 43:10-27. Like the regular haftarah for last week’s portion, this chapter contains a detailed architectural description of the Temple. But unlike the passage from 1 Kings, which gives a realistic description of Solomon’s Temple, this haftarah describes the Temple to be built sometime in the future. It is taken from the bloc of chapters with which the Book of Ezekiel ends (Chs. 40-48) concerning the Temple, its sacrifices, and other aspects of the future organization of the tribes of Israel. This section differs on a number of significant points from the laws found in the Torah on these subjects, as it does from what we know of the reality of both the First and the Second Temple. There was in fact a sharp debate among the Sages as to whether or not to accept the book as part of the biblical canon; indeed, the Talmud, in Shabbat 13b (cf. Menahot 45a, Haggiga 13a), tells us that were it not for a person named Hananiah ben Hizkiya (“may he be remembered for good”) the book of Ezekiel would have been hidden. But this Hananiah sat in an upper chamber, where he was sustained by 300 measures of oil, and expounded and resolved all the contradictions and difficulties found. So as not to exhaust my readers too much, having already written at length on other subjects, I will postpone further discussion of Ezek 40-48 for the haftarah for Shabbat Emor.

Zakhor: Samuel, Saul and Agag

But this week is in fact the second of the four special sabbaths preceding Passover: Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat preceding Purim, devoted to remembering the evil deeds of Amalek during the time of the Exodus (Exod 17:8-16). Hence, we read the Torah portion commanding the eradication of Amalek and “erasing his memory from under the heavens” (Deut 25:17-19), and a suitable haftarah.

Unlike the jolly, carnival-like atmosphere of Purim, Shabbat Zakhor is a time for focusing on the more serious side of the message of Amalek’s existence in the world (and of Purim itself). This, perhaps, is the explanation of the seemingly paradoxical command to “eradicate the memory of Amalek” but at the same time to “remember what he did to you… do not forget.” “Eradicating his memory” means to eliminate the nation of Amalek, totally (itself a problematic imperative: is one to response to heinous, genocidal violence in kind? More on that below); whereas the commandment to “remember” applies to memory. Even after Amalek himself is gone (is he ever, really? Is Amalek a specific ethnic group, or the embodiment of an almost metaphysical principle of evil?), there are lessons to be learned from the history of the encounter with Amalek, the embodiment of human evil, which we forget at our own peril. (As the generation of Holocaust survivors moves into old age and beyond, this issue is one that bears more than a little contemporary relevance; see, e.g., the current debate in Germany about the construction of a Holocaust memorial in Berlin.)

The haftarah is taken from an incident related in the Prophets in which Amalek figures: 1 Samuel 15:[1] 2-34. Because this is the only reference to Amalek in the Nevi’im, it also serves as the haftarah for Shabbat Purim (in Jerusalem), creating the singular situation in which the same haftarah is at times read two consecutive weeks.

The story of the haftarah is a simple one—but no less strange and problematic for all that. Saul is now king; but Samuel, who had anointed him, and announced his chosenness by God, serves as a kind of charismatic prophet, who guides his protegee (one of the most complex and tragic figures in the Bible) in the correct path he should go. Samuel conveys to him the Divine instruction to mercilessly destroy the entire people of Amalek, and to have no compassion on any one of them. Saul promptly musters together the people as an army, and proceeds to wage war, killing everything in sight, man, woman and child. But he leaves two exceptions: he spares much of the booty, both livestock and inanimate valuables, on the pretext that the former will be offered as sacrifices to God; and he spares the life of their king, Agag. Following this campaign, Saul proudly returns, telling Samuel that he has “fulfilled God’s word” (v. 13); but Samuel, who has already been told by God of Saul’s crucial omissions, replies that he has not: “What is the voice of the flock and the herd that I hear?” He then proceeds to lambast him, saying, in tones reminiscent of Isaiah or Jeremiah: “Does the Lord take delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams! For rebellion is like the sin of divination…” (vv. 22-23) And the final blow: “Because you have shown contempt of the word of God, God is disgusted with you as king!” (This last verse marks the beginning of the long process by which Samuel finds and clandestinely anoints David, who gradually displaces Saul: not without protracted periods of jealousy, suspicion, depression, attempts at murder, etc., on Saul’s part.)

At this point Saul protests: can he not be forgiven? He realizes that he has done wrong, and asks to be forgiven. Samuel responds by tearing a piece off his garment, stating that so has God torn the kingdom away from him. He then adds, curiously, that “God is not a man, that he should repent [i.e., change his mind]” (v. 29). Only then, when Saul again begs forgiveness, and asks Samuel to at least “honor me before the elders of Israel,” does Samuel agree to return and worship God together with him. The chapter concludes with Samuel finishing Saul’s undone work: he personally sends for Agag, and kills him violently.

This haftarah raises several difficult issues. First and foremost, the concept of killing an entire tribe—what we would today call genocide—being seen as a mitzvah, and Saul’s (admittedly limited) compassion as a kind of moral turpitude, disqualifying him from rule, is very difficult. Many moderns would find obedience to God’s word in such a case as repugnant rather than praiseworthy.

Second: the relationship of Saul and Samuel is interesting. Even though Saul is nominally king, the real source of moral authority remains with Samuel, the “seer” or prophet. This is the form of government that Buber, for example, celebrates as “the kingdom of God”: a nation led by no real institutional leadership, but only by charismatic figures, who speak and act directly in the name of God. For Buber, this form of government embodies the essential idea of the covenant, of the nation’s collective life being lived directly under God’s rule. The high point of his book of the above title is Gideon’s refusal to become king, despite popular demand (Judges 8:22-23); while the people’s demand to have a king like all the other nations (1 Sam 8; 12), which resulted in the reign of Saul, is the beginning of the decline. (We shall return to this issue on Shabbat Korah, whose haftarah deals with this issue). Be that as it may, Saul’s position is a very strange one for what we think of as a monarch; while David had his Nathan, and Ahab his Elijah, neither were so clearly subservient to the prophet in the way that Saul was: Nathan was more like a house advisor and “spiritual counselor,” who only once delivers really sharp criticism of the king (after David’s affair with Bathsheba), while Elijah is the king’s outspoken opponent and in no sense a friend or mentor.

Third, we are surprised by the absence of Divine compassion or willingness to forgive the repentant sinner, Saul. The very concept of teshuvah, repentance, which we think of as one of the fundaments of Judaism, seems absent. Perhaps the key is in the verse, “Though you are small in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?” (v. 17). That is, as king Saul bears far greater responsibility than an ordinary person, and is held accountable in ways that ordinary people are not.

Finally, there is the whole question of Saul’s character, who is one of the most fascinating, tragic figures in the entire Bible. He also plays a central role in the haftarah for Mahar hodesh, with which we opened this series (see HY - Year II: Bereshit). Unfortunately, I cannot discuss him here, due to lack of time, even though these two are the only Saul chapters included in the haftarah cycle. Perhaps I will take advantage, b”n, of the repetition of this haftarah next week to take another look at this dark, brooding figure.

To return to the issue of Amalek. I remember many years ago, during the early years of the Havurah movement, earnest discussions on Shabbat Zakhor among the group of morally passionate young men who made up this group, about the deep moral problems presented by this chapter. (I also recall them citing an essay by Buber on the subject, which I cannot locate. Any information will be appreciated) The insistence on utterly destroying Amalek seems cruel, barbarous. There are two separate issues: one, the eradication of an entire nation; two, the ban placed on their property, including livestock. Saul’s “compassion” on the flock and herds seems rather self-serving or, at best, based upon a rather materialistic conception of what pleases God. On that level, of course, Samuel was perfectly right to criticize Saul. As for the former issue, the operating axiom of the Bible seems to be that the entire Amalekite nation was poisoned with evil, demonic, forces, and as such utterly unredeemable.

The midrashic tradition portrays Agag sleeping with and impregnating a woman the night that Saul spared his life. This child eventually became one of the ancestors of Haman, thereby forming a directly linked from the haftarah to the Purim story and. More important, justifying Samuel’s ire by illustrating the dire consequences of Saul’s actions.

But it is one thing to talk symbolically of a nation that embodies the principle of evil, and quite another to actually apply it to real, living people. Do we actually believe that evil is genetically transmitted? And, if so, where does this leave the concept of free will? One of the nightmare fantasies of the 20th century (I think someone once made a SF film about this) deals with a mad scientist getting hold of Adolf Hitler’s DNA and cloning hundreds and thousands of little Hitlers, who presumably form an irresistible force pushing the world into Nazism. But what made Hitler was not his genetic makeup, but all of the things that shaped his life: his paranoiac personality, the ideas of race and Volk that formed his Zeitgeist, his rhetorical ability that enabled him to sway millions, the organizational and technical means available to the Nazis at that particular point in time enabling them to carry out their genocidal plans with diabolical efficiency, etc., etc.

Samuel and Saul Revisited: An Overview

This Shabbat (i.e., in 2001, and in 2005), in Jerusalem, the haftarah from Shabbat Zakhor is read for the second consecutive week, the only occasion in Jewish liturgy when such a thing is done. Studying this haftarah (1 Samuel 15) last week, I realized that, apart from the profound moral issues raised by the wholesale killing of the Amalekites, this chapter is also the axis around which the drama of the entire book of First Samuel revolves. A brief schematic overview:

The book begins with the emergence of Samuel as the leader of Israel (navi or roeh), who in a sense displaces Eli and his priestly clan; goes on to show Samuel himself, kicking and screaming, forced to appoint a king over the people; and the relationship, ambivalent almost from the beginning, between Samuel and the monarch-elect, a hitherto unknown farmer or shepherd from the back hills of Benjamin named Saul. Part of this ambivalence derives from the issue as to whether the people Israel should have a king at all (which I will discuss, with God’s help, come Shabbat Korah, in connection with the haftarah from 1 Sam 12, together with Chapter 8 of this book); but partly from the character of the young king or “nagid.” From the beginning, he exhibits a certain emotional instability and tendency to extreme states: thus, when he encounters a band of “prophets,” he seems to fit easily into their ecstatic activities (“is Saul also among the prophets”: 10:11); on the day of his coronation, he is overcome by bashfulness and hides among the vessels (10:21-22). As we mentioned last week, the judge or prophet Samuel is the dominant force in the nation, to whom Saul is largely subservient. Early in his reign, he is called to account by Samuel for what might seem a trivial violation: impatient for Samuel’s return, Saul offers sacrifices so that he may pray for the success of his military campaign, rather then waiting for the presence of his mentor. When the latter arrives, he dresses him down, telling him that “now your kingdom shall not be established” (13:8-14). For a brief period, Saul nevertheless does prove himself, winning military victories over Moab, Amon, Edom, and other hostile nations (14:47-52), and Samuel’s stern words seem to have been withdrawn.

But the real turning point in Saul’s life is the incident recounted in this haftarah: this time, when Samuel says that he is unfit to be king and that God has rejected him, he means it. Immediately thereafter (15:35) we read of Samuel “mourning” for Saul (an interesting and, as far as I know, unique use of this word: hitabel here is obviously not mourning for the dead, but grieving over a deep disappointment in another person, whom for a long time Samuel had hoped would be a suitable protegee and heir, perhaps almost a kind of adopted son—note that Samuel did not have much nakhas from his own sons), until God tells him to pull himself together, fill up his horn with anointing oil, and go find someone more suitable.

It is this command that opens the second half of the book. We are in fact told that Samuel never again saw Saul until the day of his death (although they did have a posthumous encounter with the help of the necromancer at Ein-Dor on the eve of Saul’s own death in battle; 1 Sam 28); indeed, after he anoints David, we hear little of Samuel altogether. The second half of the book is devoted to the complex relationship between Saul and David. Saul initially adopts David as a kind of protegee: he is a bright young man, who plays on the harp and comforts him in his increasingly frequent bouts with depression (described as “an evil spirit from the Lord”; 16:14 and elsewhere); he in fact becomes a member of the family, marrying one of the daughters and becoming best friend with his son Jonathan. But Saul quickly grows suspicious and jealous: the friendship between the two young men is too close, overstepping the boundary of loyalty to his own royal house; David’s popularity after slaying Goliath irks him; finally, Saul begins making sporadic attempts to kill David. David flees, and Saul is shown pursuing him all over the map of Eretz Yisrael (Chs. 19- ff. ), until the dramatic encounter in the cave at Ein-Gedi (“the rocks of the ibexes,” Ch. 24). David proves that he means him no harm, cutting off a corner of Sauls’ cloak while the latter is sleeping to demonstrate his peaceful intention: i.e., that he could have killed him but didn’t.

The book ends with the decisive battle on Mount Gilboa. Saul had abolished witchcraft throughout Israel; then, in a crucial moment—confused, desperate, clutching at straws—he disguises himself and goes to visit a witch at Ein-Dor, whom he asks to calls up the spirit of Samuel, his old teacher. The latter is not pleased at the summons and has no good news to tell: the very next day, Saul and Jonathan both fall in battle. David pays them a final tribute in the famous elegy which opens Second Samuel.

To summarize: How are we to interpret Saul’s character? Was Samuel too tough on Saul? Did his own ambivalence about the institution of the monarchy contribute to the downfall of this essentially good, humble man? Was the job just too much for him? What were the qualities that made Samuel, or for that matter God, think that this ordinary young man from the back hills could become the leader of the people of Israel? There is perhaps no human tragedy in the entire Bible to equal this tale, in which we see in bold colors the gradual fall of a man brought about through the inherent faults and weaknesses in his own character.

Two postscripts to the haftarah, which was our original concern. First, the scene with Samuel and Agag provides an interesting illustration of the fallibility of translation. 15:32 reads Veyelekh Agag eilav ma’adanot. RSV and others render this “And Agag came to him cheerfully,” as if ma’adanot were derived from the root ‘eden. But NJPS reads “He approached him with faltering steps,” from ma’ad. He knew full well that Samuel had it in for him. Sar mar hamavet (which doesn’t mean ”Mr. Death”!) can accordingly be read as “Surely the bitterness of death is past” or “bitter death is at hand.”


Blogger Fern Sidman said...



This week's parsha, Tetzaveh, focuses on Korbonot - Sacrifices. The word "korbon" - sacrifice, is derived from the word "karov" - to come close, teaching us that in order to come close, in order to really build a relationship, commitment and sacrifice are prerequisites. In the Purim story, a terrible edict was enacted against our people that placed the very life of our nation in jeopardy. Haman, the arch anti-Semite, came up with a plan for the "Final Solution" from which there was no escape. Esther and Mordechai however, saved the nation. What was their secret? How did they bring about this miracle? The answer is commitment and sacrifice.
"Go and assemble all the Jews," Esther decreed. "Let them fast for me and not eat or drink for three days." And Esther herself fasted and undertook an even greater sacrifice. Unsummoned, she went to plead the cause of her people before the King knowing full well that the penalty for such an infraction was death. But precisely because of that, precisely because she was prepared to put herself on the line, to forfeit her life for the sake of her people, she succeeded.

Mordechai too put his life on the line. By refusing to bow down before Haman, he demonstrated his total, unflinching loyalty to HaShem. But Mordechai did not stop there - he went further. He donned sackcloth and called upon all the Jewish people to pierce the Heavenly Gates with their cries and prayers. He assembled the school children and dressed them in sackcloth as well. He called upon them to fast, pray and study Torah, The children wept, and their words of Torah reached the very Throne of G-d.

Once again, we are confronted by a Haman, and even as Haman of old, this 21st century Haman is also a son of Persia - Iran... and even as Haman of old was determined to annihilate and exterminate all our people, so this modern day madman is scheming to wipe us off the face of the earth. And even as Haman had many willing accomplices and built his arsenal, so this modern day Haman has his cohorts and his deadly bomb. But even as Haman perished, so too will this evil man and his followers. We need only follow the example of Esther and Mordechai - turn to our G-d in prayer and repentance, and He will do the rest.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Fern Sidman said...



Columbia University students including the College Conservatives and campus Democrats plan to protest a speech Wednesday by a professor who has written that Jewish organizations exploit the Holocaust to deflect criticism of Israel and to extort European banks and governments for compensation.

Norman Finkelstein, an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, wrote in his 2000 book "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" that some Jews have used the Holocaust as an "extortion racket" to get compensation payments, and he has referred to Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as the "resident clown" of the "Holocaust circus."

His most recent book, "Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History," is largely an attack on lawyer Alan Dershowitz's "The Case for Israel." In it he argues that Israel uses the outcry over perceived anti-Semitism as a bully weapon to stifle criticism.

In an editorial in Columbia University's student newspaper, The Columbia Spectator, Columbia sophomores, Chris Kulawik and Josh Lipsky write the following: "Those who assume that Finkelstein is just another "controversial" speaker, one of many in Columbia's recent past, fail to grasp the absurdity that is Finkelstein. Taking a job at DePaul University after being fired by New York University for his ludicrous and factually inaccurate book, The Holocaust Industry, this "scholar" makes his living off of absurd statements that garner comfortable speaking engagements. At a recent speech delivered at Yale University, Finkelstein equated the Jewish concern over Holocaust denial with a "level of mental hysteria." Clearly, we must first question his very "professorship." Anyone who so blatantly disregards facts and vehemently supports the murder of innocent children is worthy neither of academia nor of the title of professor.

Well, what precisely is Mr. Finkelstein's crime? It is not that he is a Holocaust revisionist. It is not that he denies the right of the Jewish state to exist. It is not that he cheapened the lives of the millions of innocents lost to the concentration camps by equating their systematic murder to any other large disaster. No, his crime both includes and transcends these radical, depraved stances. Only months after Sept. 11, 2001, Finkelstein asserted his support of terrorism. In that 2001 interview, Finkelstein exclaimed, "Frankly, part of me says—even though everything since Sept. 11 has been a nightmare—'You know what, we deserve the problem on our hands because some things [Osama] bin Laden says are true.'"

It is this sentiment that forces students to take a stand against Finkelstein's unique blend of pure idiocy and potent evil. Columbia attempts to teach its students to respect all opinions, listen to all viewpoints, and embrace the free exchange of ideas. We will listen, but we will not let a petty ploy to incite tension and turmoil go unnoticed."

In defense of Professor Finkelstein, the Columbia Spectator also published the views of Arab students. Maryum Saifee and Athar Abdul-Quader who write, "Finkelstein's critics, most notably Alan Dershowitz, charge Finkelstein with anti-Semitism precisely because of his criticism of Zionism, i.e. criticism of the Israeli occupation and Israeli state-sponsored human rights abuses committed against Palestinians. This isn't the first time that a reputable scholar has been typecast as anti-Semitic for critical views against Israeli policies (see David Horowitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America). Undoubtedly, anti-Semitism is an ugly, appalling form of bigotry that deserves universal condemnation. However, Zionism is a political ideology and must never be confused with the Jewish religion, culture, or population. Contrary to the anti-American label commonly placed on Finkelstein, his critique of political Zionism is precisely the type of controversial political discourse that is characteristically American and is analogous to the College Democrats' stimulating debate on the Bush administration.

Finkelstein is often met with accusations of Holocaust revisionism, generally associated with Holocaust denial. Finkelstein's book The Holocaust Industry is actually a critique of Holocaust revisionist arguments that privilege the Holocaust as exceptional in the historiography of genocide. Far from the Anti-Defamation League's claims that Finkelstein is a Holocaust denier, his proof is an unambiguous affirmation that the Holocaust did occur -- his parents are living proof of its horrors! -- noting that the tragedy of the Holocaust has since been ruthlessly exploited and commercialized into what Finkelstein outlines as an industry to promote Zionist interests."

In Norman Finkelstein's own words, he states, "The problem is when you get to the United States. In the United States among those people who call themselves supporters of Israel, we enter the area of unreason. We enter a twilight zone. American Jewish organizations, they’re not only not up to speed yet with Steven Spielberg, they're still in the Leon Uris exodus version of history: the “this land is mine, God gave this land to me," and anybody who dissents from this, you can call it, lunatic version of history is then immediately branded an anti-Semite, and whenever Israel comes under international pressure to settle the conflict diplomatically, or when it is subjected to a public relations debacle, such as it was with the Second Intifada, a campaign is launched claiming there is a new anti-Semitism afoot in the world."

There is no question that Professor Norman G. Finkelstein is a self hating, viciously anti-Semitic Jew. One of his biggest supporters is David Irving, the Holocaust denier who was recently sentenced to three years in prison by an Austrian court for statements he made denying the veracity of the Holocaust. Despite the fact that Finkelstein in the son of Holocaust survivors, his vituperative and twisted and patently distorted logic is being embraced the world over by legions of devoted Jew haters.

We are told that a person can be honest, decent, moral and ethical without belief in G-d. We know that at the beginning of the 20th century, the false gods of education and culture began to replace the One true G-d of Israel. Jews began to believe that a moral and ethical person was one who was highly educated, one who attended the best of most prestigious universities and institutions of higher learning. We believed that an educated and cultured person was a moral person, who would never even entertain the notion of murder, of dishonesty and engaging in unethical practices.

At the beginning of World War II, that fallacy fell apart at the seams. For it was highly educated and extremely cultured German scientists who invented the gas chambers, who invented techniques to transform Jewish fat into soap and who discovered ways of making Jewish skin into lampshades. It was highly educated and cultured lawyers who devised and created laws that developed a society predicated on racism, fascism and xenophobia.

Let us never be fooled. "Reishis Chochma Yiras AdoShem". The beginning of wisdom is the fear and knowledge of G-d. Without that we have nothing. Without that, even highly educated and cultured people can and do engage in immorality, unethical conduct and become purveyors of lies, hatred, distortions, bigotry and Jew hatred. Professor Finkelstein is the personification of such evil.

11:39 PM  

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