Late on a cold winter night in January, 1948, thirty-five Palmach soldiers headed out surreptitiously carrying military and medical supplies on their backs to the besieged community of Gush Etzion which was cut off from the rest of the Yishuv. Dawn broke before they reached their destination and the convoy was spotted by an elderly Arab. The young men decided to spare the life of the old shepherd who then informed local Arab villagers of their whereabouts. Hundreds of armed Arabs appeared and ambushed the Palmach group brutally massacring all thirty-five (lamed hey) members of the convoy.
The Gemara (Megillah 30a) tells us that the haftara read on Parshat Zachor before Purim is the story of Shaul and Agag (I Shmuel 15:2-34). The Navi relates that Shmuel instructed King Shaul to wage war against Amalek and to completely destroy the nation and all its property. Shaul was successful in this battle, but he committed two grave errors. He kept Amalekite King Agag alive, and he failed to kill the livestock as instructed.
We learn in a Midrash that Agag managed to impregnate a concubine in the time between being spared by Shaul and killed by Shmuel (v. 33), which ultimately led to the birth of Haman HaAgagi many years later. For this transgression, Shmuel informed Shaul that “just as you have rejected the word of Hashem, so has Hashem rejected you from being king over Israel” (v. 26).
The Malbim explains how Shaul made this grave miscalculation. Three times the Navi uses the word “chamal” in reference to Shaul and the Jewish people: in Shmuel’s instructions the prophet says “do not have pity (CH-M-L) on [Amalek]” (v. 3); “Shaul and the people took pity (CH-M-L) on Agag” (v. 9); Shaul defends their actions of saving the animals by saying “I have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people took pity (CH-M-L) on the best of the sheep and cattle in order to slaughter them to Hashem” (v. 15).
The Malbim picks up on this choice of words describing Shaul’s decision to spare Agag. As opposed to another term expressing compassion (such as R-CH-M or CH-U-S), the word CH-M-L refers to a person unnecessarily taking pity on something he has no real need for, but he makes the “intellectual determination that it is not proper to destroy this thing and its continued existence is better.” The Malbim continues to explain that Hashem specifically used the term CH-M-L to indicate to Shaul that it is normal and appropriate for him to be distressed by the killing of the Amalekites and the destruction of their property. Nevertheless, Hashem was warning Shaul that ultimately, he must submit that sense of compassion to Hashem’s divine wisdom and justice.
The Gemara (Yoma 22b) applies the verse in Kohelet (7:16) to Shaul’s misplaced mercy: “Do not be overly righteous.” The Maharsha elaborates that the Pasuk teaches us that we should not be too merciful towards the wicked, and that this was, indeed Shaul’s error. Ultimately, a leader’s compassion for the wicked is a cruelty to one’s own people, who must suffer the consequences down the road. After all, had Shaul not spared Agag, Haman would never have been born and the Jews of Persia would not have been threatened with annihilation.
Megillat Esther provides a Tikkun for Shaul’s mistake in a rematch between Mordechai, from Shaul’s tribe of Benjamin, and Haman, from Amalek. Mordechai instructed Esther to plead with Achashvarosh to negate Haman’s plot, but Esther expressed reservations about entering the king’s chambers uninvited, which would risk her own death. Surely, Mordechai understood her fear and his sense of compassion and concern for Esther’s life could have led Mordechai to hesitate, as Shaul did. Nevertheless, Mordechai set aside his compassion and pity and urged Esther to do what was right, even if it was against her and his self-interest. What may have appeared to be cruelty at first – pushing Esther to risk her life – turned out to be a tremendous act of mercy and compassion for the Jewish people who were spared as a result.
Death and destruction are painful realities of war, and should be avoided whenever possible. On a daily basis, Israel’s military and political leaders must balance the proper and necessary compassion towards our enemies with the duty of keeping Israel safe. We learn from Shaul’s misplaced mercy in the haftara for Parshat Zakhor that a failure to strike the right balance can have disastrous consequences down the line, and we pray that Hashem gives Israel’s modern leaders the wisdom to make the right decisions.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz is the director of Israel365 and editor of “The Israel Bible,” and Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a psychologist and a new Oleh to Israel, as well as a rebbe in Yeshivat Lev Hatorah. Please send comments to Haftarah@TheIsraelBible.com