Friday, September 05, 2008

Thoughts on Shaul

A Circumcison Sermon: Saul as Everyman

For the brit of Sha’ul Yaakov Chipman, ben Ariel Dan and Leigh – born in Cambridge England, Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot 5765, 1 October, 2004.

When I first heard that Ariel and Leigh had chosen the name Saul, or Shaul, my instinctive reaction was that this name was a heavy burden to place on the tiny shoulders of this tender new-born, the rakh hanimol. Saul is quite possibly the most darkly tragic figure of the Bible. A kind of Shakespearean figure, or a tragic hero from a Greek tragedy, whose unhappy end somehow seem the inevitable result of faults that were present in his character from the very beginning.

But on second thought, perhaps such a name is befitting a 21st century child. We live in an anti-heroic age; indeed, at times we seem even excessively quick and zealous to perceive the failings of our leaders. Hence a figure like Shaul, whose life reflects the ambiguities and complexities of human life—a man who, on the one hand, was the founding father of his nation’s monarchy, but, on the other, was marked by striking failings—is perhaps a suitable name for a child who, in due time, will himself have to face the ambiguities and complexities of an unknown and rapidly changing, even volatile, world.

While a family celebration is hardly the occasion for a full-scale literary or psychological analysis of the biblical cycle of Saul narratives, which extend over most of the thirty-one chapters of the First Book of Samuel, I would nevertheless wish to share with you some of the reflections prompted by this choice of name, concluding, as a good preacher, with some moral lessons to be derived for ourselves and especially for the subject of this celebration, the latest addition to the Chipman clan.

Who, then, was Saul? In his email announcing Saul’s birth, and explaining the choice of name, Ariel stated that:

Although he is often maligned in Jewish tradition, he is mostly an impressive figure, described as being head and shoulders above the crowd (physically and personally), who did much for the consolidation of the nascent kingdom. His main shortcoming seems to have been a lack of attention to the details of ritual required by his mentor, the prophet Samuel, which ultimately proved his downfall.

This view is very much in keeping with a certain secular Israeli, political interpretation of Saul’s career—one that was particularly popular in the early years of the State, whose atmosphere was much influenced by the rediscovery, by the first generation of Israeli leaders and military men, of the art of warfare and the values of the military. Saul was clearly a great general, a wise tactician, a strong, courageous man who cut a physically imposing figure—and, of course, the first real king, who consolidated and united the nation of Israel in ways it had not been before. I recently heard from Assyriologist Israel Ef’al a verbal summary of an unpublished lecture he delivered on the 10th anniversary of Moshe Dayan’s death, entitled “Moshe Dayan’s Bible.” It is well known that Ben-Gurion was a great devotee of the Bible, who saw the Tanakh in its entirety as playing a central role in the nascent Israeli culture, as well as offering a significant cultural alternative to the Talmud-centered culture of the Diaspora. But for Dayan, as well as for such seminal figures as Saul Tchernichowsky and Nathan Alterman, the significant part of the Bible really ended with the death of Saul; that is, what most interested them was the activity of Joshua, the judges, and Saul in establishing a Jewish/Israelite state in the Land of Israel, in whose footsteps the followed. (although Tchernichowsky, who was himself named Saul, was also fascinated by the tragic aspect of this figure, and wrote a very moving and profound poem about “Shaul at Ein-dor.”) In any event, the problem with Saul, as I see it, was not his inattentiveness to ritual matters, for which he was soundly dressed down and ultimately rejected by his mentor Samuel, but goes much deeper, to certain central motifs in his psychological makeup.

Before turning to that subject, I must make brief mention of another interpretation of the Saul stories, which sees them as a kind of polemical weapon in the struggle for leadership between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah during various points in the history of the kingdom. There are those who read these stories’ as they do those of Joseph and his brothers, in terms of the later inter-tribal rivalry. (Thus, for example, Yairah Amit, in her book, Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narratives).

But I would prefer to read the text on its own terms. I am not one given to rigidly fundamentalist readings of the Bible, but in light of the near impossibility of recreating the actual historical figure of Saul, I think one must relate to the account of his life with at least as much seriousness as one does to any other character in a literary text, such as Hamlet or Ivan Karamazov, and try to make some sense of him in terms of what is told in the text. And in those terms, there is no doubt that he is a complex, deeply tragic figure. And, along those general lines, perhaps we can take Saul as a kind of emblematic character, his life embodied some of both the potentials and the pitfalls of human life—with the hope and prayer that little Saul will, with proper guidance from his wise parents, and with si’ata dishmaya, with Divine help, take the right turns at those points where his biblical namesake took the turns leading downwards.

The subject is both extensive and complex, embracing Saul’s relationships with his mentor Samuel, or Shmuel; with his own son Jonathan; and with his heir David. In the interests of brevity, I will try to focus on three central stages in his life:

1. Youth. We first encounter Saul as a shepherd youth, much like Moses or David. He first encounters Samuel while wandering over the highland of Benjamin-country while looking for some lost donkeys. Samuel, who senses Saul’s potential for greatness, and had been forewarned by God that Saul would be looking for him, clandestinely anoints him as leader of Israel. He then foretells three important encounters: first, at Tzeltzah he will meet some people who will tell him that his father’s donkeys have been found; then, at Elon Tavor, a second group on their way to the Temple at Beth-el, who will spontaneously offer him two loaves of bread; finally, at Givat Elohim he will encounter a band of ecstatic prophets, in whose ecstatic activities he will briefly share.

Reading this as a Bildungsroman, I see here three fundamental stages in the development of a young adult: first, separation from total involvement in his family and its concerns, an essential part of the forming of an independent identity; or, that he can leave hamorim, material concerns, to be handled by others. Second, spontaneous gestures of recognition by others, who see him as a significant figure deserving of a gift, as a sign of honor. Third, mystical ecstasy, a glimpse of a spiritual world, of a totally different mode of life. But all these were almost “beginner’s luck”: signs that required further deepening. The b’nei henevi’im were, after all, only novices in prophetic praxis, in mystical technique, and not full-fledge prophets. Saul’s meeting with them was a “high” without any contents or ethical message. Saul’s tendency towards mystical ecstasy revealed here is unusual, unparalleled by any other leader of his type, and is even presented as somewhat bizarre (“Is Saul also among the prophets?”). I find myself wondering whether the moodiness and tendency to depression he displays at a later stage in his life may not be the reverse side of this ability to be too easily caught up in emotional extremes.

Another strange thing about this early stage is Saul’s hesitancy about the kingship. He was initially anointed as king in a clandestine fashion. Later on, when a public ceremony of coronation at the tribal gathering does take place, he runs away, hiding among the vessels. (This is, by the way, the origin of the Hebrew idiom for shyness, nehba el hakelim).

Every person has a certain capacity for greatness. Students of the brain note that the creative potential of almost every human being is far greater than what we realize, and most of us utilize only a small portion of our brain capacity. (Certainly, with the combined genetic heritage of the Chipmans and Barons, little Shaul should have the potential to accomplish all sorts of great things in his life.) In any event, at a certain point Saul suddenly seems to lack faith in himself: he is overcome by a mysterious shyness, which is really a fear of becoming our optimal selves. As has been said, sometimes fear of success can be as potent and debilitating as fear of failure.

2. Maturity. During the initial years of his kingship, Saul showed his mettle both as national leader and as military commander. There were several significant military victories, revealing Saul’s talent as a military strategist; he also consolidated the kingdom by repelling external enemies, doing so, for the first time, not merely in an ad hoc manner, as did the Judges, but through a permanent state structure. He embodied a certain model of forceful masculinity, of physical strength, impressive stature, and bravery in battle. When necessary, he could also be cruel in getting people into line, as in the threats he used to persuade all the tribes to join in the offensive against Nahash king of Ammon.

But the very toughness that made him so successful in battle also had a rigid, cruel side. In the battle of Mikhmas he abjured all the combatants to fast till the evening, upon pain of death; his son Jonathan, who had not heard about this oath, stuck his staff into a honeycomb and tasted some of the honey, “and his eyes became bright.” (14:29). Notwithstanding the clearly unintentional nature of this violation, Saul would have killed his own son for this violation, were it not for the public outcry at the prospect. Clearly, he was unable to overlook faults, to forgive others.

In any event, as the Mussar (and Buddhist) saying has it: the real test of a man is how he returns from the “small war” to the “great war“—that is, learning to master the chaotic, destructive elements in his own personality. In this lay Saul‘s downfall: he was utterly unable to maintain his emotional and spiritual equilibrium when things went wrong. True, fate played him some nasty tricks. His beloved mentor, Samuel, was antagonistic towards him almost from the beginning, hinting to the people that he did not approve of the entire idea of having a monarch. This must have been a harsh blow. Moreover, Shmuel‘s unsparing anger and criticism over small, mostly ritual matters (e.g., Saul not waiting for Samuel to return before offering a certain pre-battle sacrifices; sparing some of the spoils of Amalek; etc.), must have seemed harsh, as Ariel mentioned. But this is a major subject in its own right.

An important turning point came when David won unexpected popularity: the shepherd lad, who had hitherto calmed Saul with his music, suddenly returns from the battle with Goliath, as a hero. The maidens dance through the streets with tambourines, singing, “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands.” Finally, this selfsame David wins the trust and friendship of his own son, Jonathan, who sides with him against his own father! It is no wonder that Saul became morbid, bitter, withdrawn into himself, and obsessed with seeking revenge against his enemies.

Two crucial verses are emblematic of this turn in his life. Immediately after David’s hero’s reception, we are told that Saul began to hate David from that day forward (18:9). The very next day, when David returns to play the harp as usual in Saul’s house, “an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he prophesied within the house.” While thus “prophesying” (a word that, interestingly, is used in this context to refer to both positive or negative states, in which a person relinquishes conscious control of his actions), Saul grabbed a spear in an attempt to kill David. It was only David’s quicker reactions and footwork that saved him.

Was this moodiness, this susceptibility to moroseness and suspicion, the “evil spirit” from God, somehow the flip side of the earlier, ecstatic side of personality? In modern terminology, did he suffer from a kind of manic-depressive syndrome? The use of the same Hebrew verb, tzalah, to indicate the onset of the spirit, suggests that this is the case.

Interestingly, Saul continued to maintain David as part of his court—evidently, in order to keep an eye on him and to find a way of eliminating him. He even offered him marriage to his daughter—first to Merav, who in the end married someone else; and then to Michal, who was herself in love with him. Since we are celebrating a brit, we might mention here in passing the unique bride price Saul asked of David: the foreskins of one-hundred Philistines. Those were, one might say, rough and ready days.

From this point on, things rapidly decline. Saul conducts a formal banquet to celebrate the new moon, and is irked that David is absent (after a second attempt on his life by Saul), and senses that something is afoot, also with his son Jonathan. In the following chapters, Saul pursues David all over the map of Israel. David even flees to the land of the Philistines, where he feigns insanity to protect himself. One night, while Saul is sleeping with his men in a cave in Ein-Gedi, David surreptitiously cuts off a corner of the latter’s cloak, which he sends to Saul—as if to say: I had an opportunity to kill you, but did not lay my hands upon you. The scene ends with a tearful reconciliation (until the next time Saul is overcome with fear and hatred for David).

3. The End. A word about the final scene in Saul’s life. On the eve of a decisive important battle with the Philistines at Gilboa, Saul failed to receive any answer from the legitimate sources of oracular knowledge—dreams, prophets, or the Urim and Tummim. Plagued with anxiety and fear, he consults a necromancer at Ein-dor, a witch who brings up the spirits of the dead, to ask Samuel whether or not he will win or lose this battle. Ironically, as king he himself had banned all such magical and supernatural practices; hence this woman is operating clandestinely—and Saul too visits her in disguise. He asks her to call up the spirit of Samuel the prophet. Samuel has no good news to bring: he sees Israel soundly routed, and Saul and Jonathan lying dead on the battlefield— as, indeed, happens the very next day,

The interesting question is: what led Saul to such a blatant violation of his own ostensible principles? It leads one to wonder whether his banning of witches and magic was based on any deep identification with the monotheistic values that contravene any kind of tampering with the spirit world, or was merely a kind of conventional piety—he had been taught that this is what one ought to do, but broke in a moment of crisis, when he needed to speak with the one person he really loved and trusted—Samuel. But the latter, in addition to being annoyed at being disturbed and brought back from the world of the dead, seems not to have changed his negative opinion of Saul.

In the end, Saul was united with Jonathan in death, while David went on to eulogize both.

What of all this can we adopt as a life lesson for little Saul? What aspects of his illustrious but tragic namesake ought he to adopt? As I said at the beginning, banal as it may sound, simply to take to heart the lessons of Saul as everyman. To emulate the good things, especially the qualities of leadership, of power, of decisiveness, that Saul exhibited in the earlier stages of his life. And to avoid the pitfalls, of King Saul’s inability to cope with difficulty or failures in life. Sooner or later everyone encounters criticism for certain things they have done: this is particularly painful when it comes from parents or teachers or life mentors, but one must deal with it. Sooner or later, everyone must deal with a younger generation who seek their place in the sun, and even begin to surpass their elders in certain things (I know, this sounds like a rather far-fetched thing to say at a brit, at the very beginning of a life, but it is part of the totality of life). A person must know how to love others as himself, particularly those who are closest to him, and to rejoice in the success of those he has raised and trained rather than to see them as rivals.


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