Shabbat Zachor: Perverted compassion

Amalek’s attack was hatred for hatred's sake, cruelty for the sake of cruelty. Pity for bloodthirsty murderers is the ultimate cruelty.

Daniel Pinner ,

Gideon Hausner, Adolf Eichmann in background
Gideon Hausner, Adolf Eichmann in background
GPO/Flash 90

The Torah-reading for every Shabbat and Festival concludes with the מַפְטִיר, the Maftir (meaning “conclusion”). On most Shabbatot, the Maftir is simply a repetition of the final several verses of the Torah-reading, but on certain Shabbatot, the Maftir is a different passage entirely.

For Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim, the Maftir is the three-verse paragraph which adjures us to never forget Amalek’s attack on us in the desert:

“Remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your way out of Egypt – how he encountered you on the way and attacked from the rear all the weakest ones who were straggling behind when you were tired and weary, and he did not fear G-d. And so, when Hashem your G-d gives you respite from all your surrounding enemies in the Land which Hashem your G-d gives you as a heritage to inherit – eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens: you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvot 603, 604, and 605), the Rambam (Laws of Kings 1:1, 5:5, and 6:4), and the Sefer HaMitzvot (positive Mitzvot 188 and 189, Negative Mitzvah 59) all agree that this contains three of the 613 mitzvot, two positive and one negative:

-to remember what Amalek did to us;

-to exterminate his seed;

-not to forget what he did to us.

There is a clear reason that the Torah commands us to remember Amalek’s attack on us in the desert. It was about a month and a half after the Exodus, we were in the Sinai Desert, weak and vulnerable, recovering from centuries of slavery and persecution, in a no-man’s-land, threatening no one.

Amalek’s attack was hatred for the sake of hatred, cruelty for the sake of cruelty. Amalek richly earned for themselves the distinction of being the sole nation to be doomed to ultimate extermination.

The Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor (1 Samuel 15:1-34) recounts how King Saul, the first King of a united Israel, half a millennium later, went to war against Amalek – but failed to discharge his obligation completely. Having defeated one concentration of the Amalekites on the battlefield, King Saul and the nation he led nevertheless spared the best of the sheep and the lambs alive.

And worse, they spared the king of the Amalekites, Agag, alive.

And so G-d told the Prophet Samuel, “I regret having made Saul king, because he has turned back from following Me, and has not fulfilled My words” (v. 11).

When the Prophet Samuel (who had originally anointed Saul as King of Israel) confronted the King for his disobedience, Saul initially offered excuses to his mentor – and more, attempted to shift the blame onto the people:

“It is from the Amalekites that I have brought these [sheep and oxen], for the nation spared the best of the sheep and the oxen to sacrifice them to Hashem your G-d; the rest we completely destroyed” (v. 15).

This excuse didn’t wash with the Prophet:

“Does Hashem delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as He does in obedience to Hashem’s voice?! Behold – hearing is better than sacrificing, hearkening is better than the fat of rams! Because the sin of witchcraft is rebellion, and iniquity and idolatry are false words. Because you have rejected Hashem’s word, He has rejected you as king!” (vs. 22-23).

Now the Prophet Samuel’s words to King Saul seem unreasonably harsh. After all, King Saul had made, apparently, an innocent mistake – and, what’s more, a mistake motivated by compassion.

He didn’t kill King Agag, and he allowed the people to not slaughter the best of the Amalekites’ herds and flocks.

Was that really so terrible? Was that really rebellion against Hashem Himself? Was that really equivalent to witchcraft and idolatry?

– Well, yes.

Consider the true implications of King Saul’s attempted defence:

The nation spared the best of the sheep and the oxen to sacrifice them to Hashem your G-d; the rest we completely destroyed”.

Did they really spare them solely to sacrifice them to Hashem? Or did they really want to take those choicest animals for themselves?

G-d had commanded them to “smite Amalek and destroy all he has, do not spare him; kill man and woman alike, infant and suckling alike, ox and sheep alike, camel and donkey alike” (v. 3).

But they didn’t do this: they destroyed only the poor-quality animals, those for which they had no use anyway. They kept the best-quality animals.

And King Saul himself spared King Agag alive.

And this demonstrated that destroying some of the animals, maybe even most of the animals, and a large part of the Amalekite population was not so much to obey G-d’s command, but rather indulging their own desires and instincts and whims.

Therefore, King Saul had indeed “rejected Hashem’s word”, and was unworthy of being King of Israel.

The Prophet Samuel rectified King Saul’s perverted compassion: he demanded that King Agag be brought to him, “and Agag walked to him daintily” (v. 32).

The word מַעֲדַנֹּת, which we have translated here “daintily”, is ambiguous. “Daintily” follows Targum Yonatan, Rashi, Radak, and others: he walked in the manner of kings.

However the Ralbag, Metzudat David, Metzudat Tziyyon, and others understand it to mean “shackled”.

The Malbim understands it to mean “joyously”.

Whatever the word מַעֲדַנֹּת may mean, when Agag saw Samuel his response was, אָכֵן סָר מַר הַמָּוֶת, meaning surely the bitterness of death turns to me - or from me.

This, too, is highly ambiguous.

According to Rashi and Radak, this means “Surely the bitterness of death turns to me”, because he realised that Samuel was about to kill him. After the relief he felt when King Saul spared his life, he now realised that this was but a false reprieve: his death was all the bitterer for coming after that hope.

The Ralbag understands it entirely differently: “Surely the bitterness of death has turned away from me”. Agag was terrified that King Saul, who had captured him and shackled him, was going to kill him. But now, he saw the Prophet Samuel, radiant with compassion and love, approaching him: he was sure that the Prophet, in his compassion, was going to release him.

In any event, Agag knew almost immediately what this Prophet was going to do to him: his final words to Agag were, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women”.

And with these words, “Samuel hacked Agag into pieces before Hashem in Gilgal”.

Thus Samuel rectified King Saul’s perversion of compassion.

And King Saul indeed ended his life ignominiously: when preparing to confront the gathering Philistines he was terrified of the impending battle. Turning to the witch of Ein-Dor on the penultimate day of his life, he asked her to conjure up the spirit of his dead mentor Samuel, desperate for supernatural help and guidance (1 Samuel 28:1-19).

Indeed King Saul eventually committee the sin of witchcraft, rebelling against Hashem exactly as the Prophet Samuel had castigated him.

Nevertheless, King Saul and the people could conceivably have argued in their own defence: Is it really such a terrible sin to not kill? Is this not simply compassion taken to an extreme? Is compassion not one of the best traits? And is exaggerating it not one of the most excusable and forgivable errors?

Do our Sages not testify that Israel is identified by three signs – they are merciful, humble, and generous (Yevamot 79a, Bamidbar Rabbah 8:4, et al.)?

And does the Talmud not admonish us that “anyone who has compassion on his fellow-people is thereby known to be of the seed of Abraham our father, while anyone who does not have compassion on his fellow-people is thereby known not to be of the seed of Abraham our father” (Beitzah 32b)?

So maybe King Saul and the people whom he led (led astray? Allowed to lead him astray?) simply had a surfeit of compassion, which was why they just couldn’t bring themselves to slaughter innocent people and animals.

But no. Refusing to kill Amalek, keeping Amalek alive, isn’t a surfeit of compassion. It’s the opposite: it is a perversion of compassion.

The person who sees a murderer and doesn’t resist him, the person who allows the murderer to walk about freely because he feels sorry for the murderer, the person who argues passionately that imprisoning the murderer would unjustly punish his innocent children, does not have too much compassion. He has a perverted compassion.

And he bears guilt for anyone whom the murderer subsequently murders.

“Just as He is merciful and compassionate, so you too shall be merciful and compassionate” is a frequent Jewish axiom (Shabbat 133b, Sofrim 3:17, Sefer Torah 3:10, Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Beshallach, Massechet de-Shirah 3 et al.).

Not just because He is merciful and compassionate, but in the same way that He is merciful and compassionate. Which means that G-d defines what “merciful and compassionate” means.

Being merciful and compassionate to Amalek, or to anyone cruel and murderous, is not mercy or compassion: it is cruelty.

“Anyone who is merciful to the cruel, will eventually become cruel to the merciful” (Tanchuma, Metzora 1), and “anyone who is compassionate in circumstances when he must be cruel, will eventually be cruel in circumstances when he must be compassionate” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:1).

King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, told us that “the mercies of the wicked are cruelty” (Proverbs 12:10); and commensurate with this, our Sages taught us that “woe unto the evil, who make the attribute of mercy into cruelty” (Bamidbar Rabbah 9:18).

Compassion to cruel bloodthirsty murderers is no compassion: it is the ultimate cruelty, it is collaboration with cruelty.

This was King Saul’s terrible blunder. Not that he had too much compassion, but that his entire concept of compassion was perverted at its very base. And this was why he spared Amalek’s life.

And the result, centuries later, was that Amalek’s descendant Haman came terrifyingly close to exterminating all the Jews of the Persian Empire, which at the tine meant almost all the Jews in the world.

In our own generations we have seen people, Jewish leaders, whose compassion extended to some of the most vicious murderers around. A quarter of a century ago we saw the Israeli government offer its perverted “compassion” to the most evil and bloodthirsty Jew-killers since the Holocaust, giving them succour, releasing them from prisons, providing them with new lives of hope.

And the result was the most vicious spree of murder in Israel in two-thirds of a century, an evil from which we have not yet recovered.

Let us return to that summer’s day in the Sinai Desert 3,333 years ago, when Amalek first attacked us.

The Torah does not tell us the date of his attack, but we can calculate it fairly precisely:

The Children of Israel had arrived at the Wilderness of Sin on the 15th of Iyyar (Exodus 16:1). The next day, Sunday (Seder Olam Rabbah 5), the manna began to fall, continuing for six days. On the sixth day, Friday, they collected a double portion (Exodus 16:2-27), for Shabbat, 22nd of Iyyar.

The next day, Sunday 23rd of Iyyar, the Israelites came to Rephidim (17:1; Seder Olam Rabbah 5), where they complained about the lack of water; there Moshe struck the rock at G-d’s command to bring forth water (Exodus 17:5-6)

The next event recorded is Amalek’s attack, though (as we noted) the Torah does not specify the date of this attack.

The next event whose date we know is the Israelites’ arrival in the Sinai Desert, on the 1st of Sivan (Exodus 19:1; Targum Yonatan ad loc.; Shabbat 86b; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro – Masechet Bachodesh 1)

Hence Amalek’s attack occurred between the 24th and the 29th of Iyyar 2448 (1312 B.C.E.).

It was on the 28th of Iyyar 5722 (a few minutes after midnight on 1st June 1962), Israel hanged one of the Amalekites of the generation – the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann y”sh (acronym for 'may hs name and memory be obliterated').

Was it just coincidence that he was hanged on or about the same date that Amalek first attacked us in the desert?

Then, too, there was no shortage of intellectuals who, with their perverted “compassion”, protested against his execution: Martin Buber, Ernst Simon, Hugo Bergmann, Isaiah Berlin, Princeton Professor Walter Kaufmann, Harvard Professor and historian Oscar Handlin, and others.

Eichmann y”sh pleaded for clemency from Israel’s president, Yitzchak Ben-Tzvi. And Ben-Tzvi rejected his plea with Samuel’s words to Agag all those millennia earlier: “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women”.

Indeed. As we read in the Maftir on this Shabbat, approaching Purim:

Remember what Amalek did to you… Eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens: you shall not forget”.

Because exterminating evil is the truest compassion.




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