The Sacrifice of Obedience

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Shlomo Zuckier

Many associate the Haftarah of Shabbat Zakhor, and its attendant obligation of mehiyyat Amalek, with the tension between ethics and divine command. Both the very obligation of wiping out Amalek, and the Haftarah involving Shaul’s failure to do so, relate to this dichotomy. However, the Haftarah also raises another dichotomy, one between sacrifice and obedience. The essential argument of the Haftarah, as it has reverberated throughout Jewish history, is worthy of attention, rather than being overshadowed by other topics du jour.

The story presented in I Samuel 15 opens with Shaul receiving a divine command to fully wipe out the Amalekite army (vv. 2-3). But, after successfully defeating the army, Shaul defies the divine command, saving not only King Agag but also the animals and spoils (vv. 8-9). As R. Aharon Lichtenstein has noted, all indications point to Shaul acting for selfish reasons, as he defied the divine command out of a wish to amass more material possessions, rather than an ethical basis. He spared Agag his royal peer, but not the other Amalekite citizens, again out of personal interest. Once Shaul is acting independent of divine sanction, he becomes responsible for all the acts of killing, unable to assert that he was merely following divine orders.

God, aware of Shaul’s failure, dispatches the prophet Shmuel to confront him (v. 12). Shaul then presents a series of evasive maneuvers. He first asserts, “I have fulfilled the divine word” (v. 13). When Shmuel confronts him about the animals, he switches tactics and blames the failure to heed the divine word on the people rather than his own decision (compare vv. 9, 15). After Shmuel dismantles his arguments, noting first that Shaul is no less than the king and is therefore responsible for the people’s decisions, and noting again that no animals were to be taken (vv. 17-19), Shaul doubles down. He repeats that he did follow God’s word, and that the people took the animals, and adds the qualification that the animals were meant for sacrifices (vv. 20-21). As God did not request any such sacrifices, this line might best be read as Shaul’s attempt at bribing God, of making a “deal.” Utilizing a transactional logic, he effectively suggests, “Okay, I made a mistake, God, but surely you’ll be happy if I give you these offerings, right? I’ll give you a cut of the spoils!” Thus, not only in not following the divine command properly, but even in responding to this critique, Shaul consistently disregards God’s will, doing the minimum and then trying to pay off God instead of coming to terms with his failure.

In an important line we will return to below, Shmuel retorts that God desires not sacrifices but heeding the divine word; one can affect God neither with magic nor with bribes (vv. 22-23). The story repeats itself several more times, with Shaul asking for an opportunity to pray to God, or at least to save face before the elders (v. 30), but it is too late. Shmuel informs Shaul that God has “torn the kingship of Israel from [him] and given it to [his] superior peer” (v. 28).

This fascinating story is certainly deserving of a longer, more detailed treatment than space permits. We will focus instead on what may very well be the central point of the story, God’s rejection of a quid pro quo relationship, and his fostering of a relationship of obedience. Verse 22 contains this clear statement:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵ֗ל הַחֵ֤פֶץ לַֽיקֹוָק֙ בְּעֹל֣וֹת וּזְבָחִ֔ים כִּשְׁמֹ֖עַ בְּק֣וֹל יְקֹוָ֑ק הִנֵּ֤ה שְׁמֹ֙עַ֙ מִזֶּ֣בַח ט֔וֹב לְהַקְשִׁ֖יב מֵחֵ֥לֶב אֵילִֽים:

And Shmuel said: Does the Lord wish for burnt or peace offerings, as much as He wishes for following His voice? Listening is preferable to a good offering; heeding better than the fat of rams!

Shaul’s entire calculus and political praxis are predicated on a mistaken conception of his relation to God. He sees God as an obstacle to be navigated around; one can pay off God with a nice sacrifice, and do what one wants. As Shaul learned all too well, what God really expects is that His will be followed; no bribe can be efficacious and there is no divine work-around.

This point, that God prefers a sincere heeding of His word rather than external demonstration of obedience through empty sacrifices, appears in many other places in Tanakh, especially among the prophets. (Isaiah 1, Micah 6:6-8, and Hosea 6:6 are some classical examples.) Of course, as has been noted in both traditional and academic contexts, this is not to say that God rejects sacrifice; sacrifice is a central pillar of Judaism, as is clearly acknowledged by the very prophets who reject insincere sacrifice. But sacrifices don’t work through magic; they work as an outgrowth of one’s fealty to God, which is made manifest as one brings a sacrificial gift.

This message appears not only in Tanakh but within Hazal as well. In fact, one rabbinic interpretation of the importance of sacrifice parallels Shmuel’s exhortation almost word for word. The paradigmatic biblical phrase that might be seen as referring to sacrifice as a physical gift is re’ah nihoah, “a pleasing smell” (e.g., Leviticus 1:9). Forestalling the interpretation that this means God physically enjoys the barbecue-like smell of the offering, Hazal offer several reinterpretations of this phrase. The most relevant for our purposes is an interpretation offered in Sifrei Numbers 107, 118, and 143, and cited later in multiple additional cases:

ריח ניחוח – נחת רוח לפני שאמרתי ונעשה רצוני

“A pleasing smell” – it pleases me that I spoke and my will was fulfilled.

This interpretation utilizes the word play between re’ah nihoah, a pleasing smell of a burnt offering, and nahat ruah, divine happiness in general, as the smell is removed and the emphasis is placed on divine happiness rather than the more mechanistic pleasing of God.

Just as Shmuel asserts that God prefers heeding His voice to offerings, the rabbis interpret an apparently physical smell of sacrificial offerings as divine happiness resulting from the heeding of God’s will. Furthermore, Hazal’s interpretation can be read as not only channeling the concept presented in I Samuel 15:22, but of replaying the very language itself.

כִּשְׁמֹ֖עַ בְּק֣וֹל יְקֹוָ֑ק בְּעֹל֣וֹת וּזְבָחִ֔ים הַחֵ֤פֶץ לַֽיקֹוָק֙ I Sam. 15:22
שאמרתי ונעשה רצוני נחת רוח לפני ריח ניחוח לה SifNum 107

It is fitting that the basis for Hazal’s prioritization of heeding God’s will rather than emphasizing following specific actions appears in the context of this Haftarah. Rabbi Soloveitchik famously interpreted the commandment of mehiyyat Amalek, re-applying it to in the modern era to “any nation or group infused with mad hatred that directs its enmity against the community of Israel” (Kol Dodi Dofek, ch. 11). This interpretation, too, privileges not the specific commandment in itself (which is essentially inapplicable today) but the broader idea behind it, the concept of following God’s will to rid the world of baseless evil. The specific actions one takes to implement God’s will might shift from one context to another; we must remain attuned to retzon Hashem as we determine how to act in each scenario.Both formulations relate to God’s happiness (החפץ לה’, נחת רוח לפני), asserting that it is achieved less through physical sacrifices (בעלות וזבחים, ריח ניחוח לה’), than by heeding God’s voice (כשמע בקול ה’, שאמרתי ונעשה רצוני). Hazal may very well have had the parallel verse in Shmuel in mind as they uttered this formulation. They even sharpen the point: instead of comparing sacrifices to heeding God’s word, this midrashic teaching asserts that sacrifices are valuable precisely because they represent heeding God’s word.

Purim famously betokens the acceptance of the divine will through kiyyemu ve-kibbelu. It is only fitting that its associated Haftarah similarly emphasizes the acceptance and heeding of the divine will.

Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University and a lecturer at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He recently completed a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University as well as studies in Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon. Shlomo was formerly Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semikhah), he has lectured widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. He has taught at Yale Divinity School, Yeshiva University, the Drisha Institute, Bnot Sinai, and Tikvah programs, and has held the Wexner and Tikvah Fellowships. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.