To redeem, the irredeemable text…
Impossible dreams abound. Purim is coming. A lighter spirit is in the air. The spring is coming (at least in this hemisphere.) Purim. A holiday when those who have been threatened with harm, or feel threatened can have their hopes lifted by a tale of topsy-turvy, a reversal as stunning as any in history, as game-changing a turnaround as in any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. I mean, here’s a pretty how de do – if Esther comes for an audience with the King uninvited, she could well be put to death. Yet, like the discovery of Captain Cocoran’s and Ralph Rackstraw’s true birth statuses, it is when Esther’s hidden status (get it?) as a Jew is revealed that Haman’s evil plot is utterly foiled.
While there is an overall positive outcome that makes Purim a celebrative holiday, it is still a rather dark story. The turning upside-down aspect of the threat of death of Persia’s Jewish population darkly requires the Jews to pre-empt their own deaths by defending themselves, and, as needed, killing those who would have killed them. A simple adjustment to the plot devices used in this narrative would have allowed for a less murderous solution. G”d, who is missing from the narrative, could have perhaps provided a selective plague, earthquake, or other plot device to spare the Jews the necessity of offing their enemies directly. Or this whole nonsense about a King’s order being unable to be rescinded once issued. What utter folderol. What’s the point of being a King if you can’t change your mind?
That particular bit of fiddle-dee-dee is actually easily redeemed. We are mis-interpreting the King’s words. He is not implying that Persian law is immutable, and that there are no provisions of emendation once a edict has been made. (There’s no attestation to such policies in any source from the period, or earlier periods.) The King is being practical. Based on the timeline we can glean from the Megillah, 70 days had already passed since Haman’s original deaths sentence for the Jews has been promulgated, and another 9 months would pass before its day of execution. That means that the edict had likely been promulgated extensively throughout the Empire’s 120 provinces, stoking the anti-Semitic fires that must have already been present. Even using the fastest horses and messengers to get the news out to rescind Haman’s order would not have sufficed. As it is, the Megillah tells us there was fighting in the provinces and in Shushan. So sending out a new edict, that basically informed everyone that attacks upon the Jews would not be monarchy-sanctioned, and that Jews were free to defend themselves would work just fine. So the King didn’t really mean what he said. Mr. Billy Flynn sings the Press Conference Rag. Notice how his mouth never moves-almost. There was no collusion. I did not have sexual relations with that woman. I am not a crook. When I’m a bad Bart I will tell taradiddles.
If you believe that particular piece of whitewashing apologetics (which is derived from Rashi, to some extent,) I’ve a deed to a bridge that might interest you. So we’re still left with the question of why the story of Megillat Esther was constructed the way it was, with all the avoidable icky bits left in. Irrevocable decrees indeed. Irrevocable fiddlestick! But enough pandering to you Savoyards.
Strangely, Purim is not what I intended to write about. What got me started on this musing was my reaction to the special hafatarah we read this week for Shabbat Zachor (tied to Purim in its own way, of course.) It’s another difficult to redeem text about the story of Saul’s downfall as Israel’s first King. At least in the Purim story, G”d is absent, so we can’t blame G”d for instigating things (but we can blame G”d for not getting involved, and questioning why G”d was absent. An absent omnipresent G”d seems oxymoronic. Of course, G”d already has a history of that what with those 400 years of Israel in Egypt.)
Here, in this haftarah, G”d is directly responsible for the ugliness. (At least, if we believe Samuel is credible as a prophet.) G”d is strangely specific in that what G”d is tasking Saul with is meant to extract payback for how Amalek engaged in unethical war crimes against the Israelites when they were headed from the wilderness and into the land of Israel after their long wilderness sojourn. That’s a heckuva long time to wait for payback, but given G:”d’s time scale, perhaps not.
עַתָּה֩ לֵ֨ךְ וְהִכִּֽיתָ֜ה אֶת־עֲמָלֵ֗ק וְהַֽחֲרַמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ל עָלָ֑יו וְהֵמַתָּ֞ה מֵאִ֣ישׁ עַד־אִשָּׁ֗ה מֵֽעֹלֵל֙ וְעַד־יוֹנֵ֔ק מִשּׁ֣וֹר וְעַד־שֶׂ֔ה מִגָּמָ֖ל וְעַד־חֲמֽוֹר׃ (ס)
Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”
Saul gathered his army and went to attack the Amalekites. He showed some discernment by allowing the Kenites who were among the Amalekites to leave since their quarrel wasn’t with them. Saul then proceeded to slaughter all the Amalekites, men, women, and children, but he spared King Agag and also spared the best of the animals. As the text says, Saul only proscribed the cheap and worthless.
G”d was displeased. Why was G”d displeased? Because Saul didn’t kill all the Amalekites as ordered, and didn’t completely proscribe all their property (animals, booty, etc.) So stop and think about that for a moment. Really, G”d?
וַֽיְהִי֙ דְּבַר־יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־שְׁמוּאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹֽר׃
10: The word of the LORD then came to Samuel:
נִחַ֗מְתִּי כִּֽי־הִמְלַ֤כְתִּי אֶת־שָׁאוּל֙ לְמֶ֔לֶךְ כִּֽי־שָׁב֙ מֵאַֽחֲרַ֔י וְאֶת־דְּבָרַ֖י לֹ֣א הֵקִ֑ים וַיִּ֙חַר֙ לִשְׁמוּאֵ֔ל וַיִּזְעַ֥ק אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה כָּל־הַלָּֽיְלָה׃
11: “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from Me and has not carried out My commands.” Samuel was distressed and he entreated the LORD all night long.
Doesn’t say what G”d and Samuel discussed all night long. Was Samuel trying to talk G”d out of it? That’s sort of the inference. Doesn’t seem to have mattered, for in the morning, Samuel was off to bring Saul the news.But Saul had already moved up, erecting a monument to his victory and Carmel, and then heading to Gilgal. When Samuel finds Saul, Saul’s first act is to boast how he has fulfilled G”d’s command. Samuel sarcastically asks “then why am I hearing all this bleating and lowing?”
Of course, Saul makes it worse, because he dissembles and gets all “I meant to do that.”. He says (i.e. makes up a story) that the spared animals were all intended as a sacrifice to G”d.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵ֗ל הַחֵ֤פֶץ לַֽיהוָה֙ בְּעֹל֣וֹת וּזְבָחִ֔ים כִּשְׁמֹ֖עַ בְּק֣וֹל יְהוָ֑ה הִנֵּ֤ה שְׁמֹ֙עַ֙ מִזֶּ֣בַח ט֔וֹב לְהַקְשִׁ֖יב מֵחֵ֥לֶב אֵילִֽים׃
22: But Samuel said: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As much as in obedience to the LORD’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, Compliance than the fat of rams.
כִּ֤י חַטַּאת־קֶ֙סֶם֙ מֶ֔רִי וְאָ֥וֶן וּתְרָפִ֖ים הַפְצַ֑ר יַ֗עַן מָאַ֙סְתָּ֙ אֶת־דְּבַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה וַיִּמְאָסְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ (ס)
23: For rebellion is like the sin of divination, Defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim. Because you rejected the LORD’s command, He has rejected you as king.”
Saul gets all Trumpian and doubles down, saying he was afraid of the troops. He entreats Samuel to go back with him and Saul will seek G”d’s forgiveness. Too late. Samuel starts to leave and Saul grabs at his robe and it tears. Quick on the uptake, like any good prophet, Samuel compares the tearing of his robe to G”d now tearing rule of Israel away from Saul. Then Samuel says another one of this inexplicable bits of text:
וְגַם֙ נֵ֣צַח יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א יְשַׁקֵּ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יִנָּחֵ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֥א אָדָ֛ם ה֖וּא לְהִנָּחֵֽם׃
Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind.”
WTEverlivingF? I just can’t handle this. It’s totally irredeemable. (It’s also eerily similar to Megillat Esther’s insistence that Kingly edicts cannot be rescinded.) Those of you who know me, or have been reading my musings over the years have probably heard me say that “a god which cannot or will not change its mind is simply unworthy of being G”d.” G”d makes mistakes, G”d can be impetuous, G”d can act in anger, G”d can regret G”d’s actions and choices. That G”d makes mistakes is shown by this very story. Clearly, for G”d, making Saul King was a mistake! But there’s those pesky two rules. Rule 1: G”d is never wrong. Rule 2: When G”d is wrong, refer to rule #1. Sometimes, I think G”d (or at least G”d’s apologists) dissemble as badly as Saul did, falling back on “I meant to do that.” (Does this mean that G:”d is really a domestic cat?) I hold by the “b’tzelem anashim” reciprocal theory of G”d – if we are all in G”d’s image, then G”d, perforce, is like all of us. G”d can (and does) have the very best and worst of human attributes.
The inability to be able to change one’s mind (as opposed to purposeful refusing to do so) is a horrible circumstance I wouldn’t wish on anyone, least of all G”d. Now, admittedly, perhaps changing one’s might about something before doing that something might be more meritorious than changing one’s mind afterwards, but it’s still meritorious either way. Not just meritorious. It’s necessary.
Speaking of changing one’s mind, perhaps I can go back and look at these two situations, in Purim and in this haftarah, and find something redeeming after all. In reality, there are things so heinous, so dangerous, so evil that perhaps force and even causing death are the only way to stop them. It’s the dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki argument. It’s going to war to stop Hitler. Going to war to stop other genocides and atrocities. At Purim, we prevented an atrocity, but we had to fight to make that happen. The expunging of the Amalekites in this haftarah is not as clear-cut a necessity, though sometimes one must completely kill and remove a weed, roots and tendrils and all, to insure it never grows back.
[Ethics Sidebar: By the way, in the next chapter of the Book of Samuel, we start off with G”d telling Samuel to lie, or, to be a bit more generous to G”d, instruct Samuel to be somewhat disingenuous when he heads off to find David to proclaim him the new King. Samuel fears Saul might otherwise seek the means to stop (i.e. kill) him, so G”d proposes a ruse, a little decoy action. This is The Righteous G”d? G”d can’t just protect a prophet without this ruse?]
So just a hint, a whisper, of potential redemption here? Our Jewish history (as well as the entire history of our species) is replete with evils that might only be stopped by force. The Purim story reminds us to be ever vigilant, and also teaches us that sometimes we ourselves are the means of our own salvation. I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept, but I recognize that Judaism strives at times to limit our idealism and encourage some realistic practicality.
This haftarah for Shabbat Zachor? Eh. Not so redeemable. I suppose one can tweak the concept of being obedient to G”d’s commands being more desired by G”d than sacrifices into something sorta kinda useful. That’s really stretching it. There’s no true redemption here. My story is at an end for now.
The grating clatters open from above. I ascend the staircase to my uncertain future, while about me my fellow prisoners sing about impossible dreams and unreachable stars. Though defeated yet again today as I tilted with the dragon of irredeemable texts, my heart strives ever upward to the far, unattainable sky.
© 2019 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayikra 5778 – Kol Cheilev (Revisited)
Vayikra 5777 – As G”d Is My Witness (aka Osymandias II)
Vayikra 5776 – Stuff That’s Still Bugging Me
Vayikra 5775 – Meaningful Gifts II
Vayikra 5773 (Redux 5761) – Mambo #613: A Little Bit Of Alef In My Torah
Vayikra 5772 – Confession: Not Just for Catholics
Vayikra 5771 – I’d Like To Bring To Your Attention…
Vayikra 5770 – You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 – Redux 5763 – Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That’s Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 – Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 – Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah…