10 Mar 2017

Haftara for Zakhor (Tetsave) 5777: I Am

Haftara for Zakhor (Tetsave) 5777: I Am

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‘To attain ‘success’ without attaining positive self-esteem is to be condemned to
feeling like an impostor anxiously awaiting exposure’.

— Nathaniel Branden

I Samuel 15:2-34


 Shemuel the prophet meets King Shaul and instructs him to wage war with the Amalakites who are living between Havila and Shur. They are to destroy everything and take no spoils. Shaul musters the troops and sets out to fight. He is victorious but keeps the Amalakite king Agag, alive along with choice livestock. Shaul later blames the people for pressuring him to keep the livestock. God appears to Shemuel and informs him that He is not pleased with Shaul’s disobedience and now loathes him as king. Shemuel, who loves Shaul deeply beseeches God all night on Shaul’s behalf but to no avail. In the morning he sets out to Gilgal to inform Shaul of the news.

When confronted by Shemuel, Shaul denies his transgression twice until finally admitting his guilt. Shemuel reminds Shaul that, although the people pressed him, he is the king: ‘You may seem small in your eyes, but you are the head of all the tribes of Israel!’ (15:17)

Yet, even after admitting his guilt Shaul is ashamed to return to worship before the people without Shemuel. He is concerned about what the people will think. He begs Shemuel to bow together with him before the people. Shemuel initially refuses, but in his compassion and feeling for Shaul he finally complies. Shemuel kills Agag himself and later returns home to Ramah, where he mourns Shaul’s deposition from the throne.


Of all the judgements we pass none is as important as the judgement we pass about ourselves. We experience no psychological difficulty — apart from those originating biologically — that cannot be traced back to our own beliefs about our self-worth. Human beings with healthy and whole feelings of self-esteem are not prone towards evil and malice. When we love ourselves, we love others.

The darkness into which human beings may sink by not acknowledging the beauty, divinity and grace of their own being is horrifying. When we see ourselves as lacking value, we see life that way as well. In its worst manifestations, we see the universe and all that is in it as meaningless. The doubt of our own value and worthiness is fundamentally an existential one. By doubting the reality of our own being, we doubt the reality of Being itself. We lend ourselves to nihilistic thought and thus, nihilistic behaviour.

Nihilism originated long before the likes of the 19th and 20th century Franco-German existentialists — Nietszche, Sartre, Camus et al. — who urged us to ‘get real’ and accept that life was fundamentally absurd and meaningless. Amalek thought the same albeit, in a more rudimentary way. They devalued life as arbitrary and random, and lived based on the haphazard. In Hebrew the word for randomness is קרי – keri. It is also the root of the Hebrew word for cold – קר. It is the word used to describe the first attack of Amalek against Israel in the dessert after leaving Egypt.

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way at your going out from Egypt, how he happened upon you (קרך) on the way and attacked your tail. (Deut., 25:17-18)

We publicly read of this account in the Torah on the Shabbat before Purim because these same themes are reflected in the Purim story.

The motif of nihilism is central on Purim (literally, the festival of ‘Lots’). It manifests itself in the Megilla with Haman the Amalekite and the cold, mocking shadow he cast over all that he controlled — not the least of which, was the heart of the king and the lives of the Jewish people. He too was a nihilist, self-validating his twisted worldview in his assertion of life’s randomness. He lived his life by the throw of the dice:

In the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur—which means “the lot”—was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar. Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction (Esther, 3:7-8)

The seemingly bold, rational claims of such existentialists are but fronts for their cowardice and fear of the real power of life. They fear that if they do not display their cynicism in their rants of reason they will be taken for fools. My friend Mark Helprin wrote[1]:

They fear…that if they appreciate that which is simple and good they will foolishly have overlooked its occult corruptions, that if they stand they will be struck down, that if they love they will lose, and that if they live they will die. As surely they will. So they withdraw from engagement and risk into what they believe is the safety of mockery.

But the worst results of this thinking is that of the freezing of the human heart. Their standard states that ‘nothing matters’ and in its icy rhetoric it lures our hearts into self-doubt, then self-loathing and finally into the numbness of nothingness. If nothing has meaning, nor do we.

Therefore, the only hope for finding meaning in one’s own life is to fabricate it. The value of my life will depend on the meaning I choose to give it. This is hardly a salvation. It requires that one accept so profoundly one’s own manufactured reality that aside from the difficulty of truly believing it, the self-obsession and absorption it creates obviates love, experience and genuine interaction. It is a psychological case of ‘locked-in syndrome’.

Amalek’s cold, cynical and necessarily arrogant views of life are destructive and cruel because they mock the Source of Life and see a universe as fundamentally dead rather than alive. This thinking permeates our everyday lives. The cold rationalist thought of Amalek and their modern disciples is predominantly seen in modern society as a relief — much as the addict sees narcotics as salvation.

Nihilism, no matter how well it is dressed and celebrated, breeds arrogance, contempt and paranoia and threatens to turn all it touches to cold, grey concrete. It flows through the veins of modern society, and in our cool, isolated towers of artificial, digital identities, we give our cynicism free reign. We spurn emotion, beauty, sacrifice, love and truth in favour of coldness of feeling, ugliness, self-assertion, contempt and disbelief — all peppered with scoffing wit. The greatest casualty in all of this is the knowledge of one’s own value and worth.

This loss is the theme of our haftara and it manifests in none other than the first King of Israel, Shaul. On the surface, Shaul was the quintessential king.

Then Shemuel said to all the people: Do you see whom God has chosen?
Indeed, there is none like him among
all the people! And all the people shouted;
they proclaimed: Long live the king!” (Ibid., 10:24)

But Shaul had one major deficiency. He didn’t have a full sense of self-worth. Rather than absorb and hold the truth of his identity and position, he ran from it. He was desperate to be invisible.

Then Shaul son of Kish came up by lot.But when they looked for him, he was not to be found.So they inquired further of God:Has any other man come here?God said:Here, he has hidden himself among the gear!They ran and fetched him from there and he stood amid the people,and he was taller than all the people, from his shoulders and upward. (I Samuel, 10:21-23)

He and his household were extremely fearful of vulnerability and exposure.

It is said about Shaul and his household that neither
a heel nor a toe was ever seen among them. (Sanhedrin, 2:4)[2]

Shemuel the prophet who anointed him, presented him with his greatest challenge. He was to wage war with Amalek as part of the conquering of Israel. The king who doubted himself was to wage war against a nation who revelled in exploiting doubt and unfaithfulness. He was going in to fight his demons, a rite of passage. He did not succeed.

Rather than valiantly fulfil the order, he capitulated to the pressures of the nation.

“Now, go and strike down Amalek; you are to devote-to-destruction all that is his — you are not to spare him… But Shaul and the people spared Agag (king of Amalek) and the best of the sheep and the cattle, the fat ones, the lambs and all that was goodly; they would not devote them to destruction.

Shemuel calls him on it and Shaul defensively denies it until he cannot deny it any longer.

“Why did you not hearken to the voice of God? You swooped down on the spoils and did what was evil in the eyes of God! Shaul said to Shemuel: I did hearken to the voice of God! I went on the journey on which God sent me: I brought back Agag king of Amalek, while Amalek I devoted-to-destruction; but the people took from the spoils sheep and oxen, the premier-part of  hat was devoted, to sacrifice to God your Lord at Gilgal! Shemuel said: Is there pleasure for God in offerings and sacrifices more than in hearkening to the voice of God?… “Shaul said to Shemuel: I have sinned; indeed, I have crossed the order of God and your words, for I was afraid of the people, and so I hearkened to their voice!” (15:20-22,24)

Shemuel reminds him of the truth of his identity.

“Shemuel said: Though you may be too small in your own eyes, you are head of the tribes of Israel, for God has anointed you as king over Israel! (15:17)

Yet, Shaul cannot absorb it. His psyche is saturated in doubt. His heart has been poisoned by the tip of the existential-nihilist blade and is steadily freezing over.

Now the spirit of God departed from Shaul, 
and an evil spirit from God began to torment him.” (16:14)

He deteriorated into paranoia and acts of murder, and sought in psychotic anguish, to kill the young, handsome, charismatic, self-confident David, heir to his throne. He deeply loved David but at the same time could not stop hating him.

[And David said to Shaul:] Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing?  A dead dog? A single flea?… When David finished saying these things to Shaul, Shaul said,  “Is that your voice, my son David?” And Shaul broke down and wept…He said to David,  “You are right, not I; for you have treated me generously, but I have treated you badly…I know now  that you will become king, and that the kingship over Israel will remain in your hands. (24:17-18,21)

Shaul was unable to get around the barricades of his heart[3] and while he gave himself over to truth in his death, he could not do so during his life. He lost all that was precious to him because he profoundly doubted that anything could be truly precious[4], including himself.

Through these struggles though, he merited a great-granddaughter named Hadasa who became Esther, queen of the Persian Empire. She redeemed herself and her father’s household when faced again with the challenge of Amalek’s nihilism. She stood strong and asserted her power and identity in all of its glory. She drew from her self-worth knowing that God had breathed life into her and that He was the source of her being. She knew that her true value was not of her own making, but that its protection was in her hands.

Mordekhai had this message delivered to Esther:… If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to  royal position for just such a crisis.”  Then Esther sent back this answer to Mordekhai: “Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days,  night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king,  though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

Clearly, the fate of the Jews was not at stake. It was Esther — her identity, her forbears, her very existence and being.

In the end, King Shaul is an example of the incapacity of human nature to live in a world of nihilism without deteriorating into insanity. The breath of God within us will not allow us peace if we accept it. In our souls we know that things do matter. While preciousness and value may be threatened by the frosty mocking of those who have replaced their souls with shadows, the human heart will always triumph. Of this, one can be certain. Purim celebrates this victory, and the story of the conviction of the human spirit, that will live on when all others fade[5].

 Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, Mock on, ’tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

 The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

— William Blake

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] “The Literary Tenor of the Times”, The Claremont Review of Books, Vol. VII, Number 1 – Winter 2006/07

[2] Yerushalmi

[3] 26:1

[4] While randomness is קרי in Hebrew, ‘precious’ is spelled with the same letters, but with the י at the beginning – יקר. A word used repeatedly at the Megilla’s climax.

[5] All the books of the Prophets and all the Holy Writings will be nullified in the Messianic era, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, as will the five books of the Torah and the halachot of the Oral Law, which will never be nullified. 

The celebration of the days of Purim will not be nullified, as Esther 9:28 states: “And these days of Purim will not pass from among the Jews, nor will their remembrance cease from their seed.” (Rambam, Hilkhot Megilla, 2:18)

Parsha Perspectives

VIII Tetzaveh  

45e              Continual lamp, ner tamid  (27:20-21)
45f               Selection of Kohanim and list of garments of holiness for Aharon  (28:1-5)
46a              The cape, ephod  (28:6-12)
46b              Chains of gold, sharsherot zahav, joins the cape and breastplate  (28:13-14)
46c               Breastplate of judgment, choshen mishpat  (28:15-30)
46d              Long robe of the cape, me’il ha’ephod  (28:31-35)
46e              Hat, mitznafet, golden head plate, tzitz zahav and regular Kohanim’s garments                     (28:36-43)
46f               Sanctification of priesthood, maleh yadam, and altar, mizbeyach (29:1-37)
46g              The continual offering, olat tamid (29:38-46)
47                Altar for the burning of incense, mizbeyach ketoret (30:1-10)

22                Remembering Amalek  (Deut., 25:17-19)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS