This week’s haftara, read every year on the Shabbat preceding Purim, accompanies the special reading for Shabbat Zachor. This is a unique commandment that not only exhorts us to remember what Amalek did to us but demands that we hold them accountable. We are to remember (“zachor”) and also to erase. The mitzvah is framed in explicit theological terms as we are literally fighting Hashem’s battles for Him. In point of fact, Hashem usually fights ours for us. Certainly in the Purim story we remember above all how Hashem came through for us when we were threatened with annihilation. Yet the mitzvah of destroying Amalek holds us accountable for the continued presence of evil in the world. As individuals and as a nation, when we see evil we are commanded to root it out.
Interestingly, we learn that in a broad historical sense, it is not often our responsibility is to destroy evil in direct confrontation. That is not always feasible and is not always appropriate given our larger role as the bearers of the light of Hashem’s Torah. In fact, the mitzvah as it is given in our special Torah reading is prefaced by the following condition: “When Hashem will situate you in your land… (free from) all of your enemies…” (Devarim 25:19).
On the stage of history, we have been taught that Hashem often uses the wicked to destroy the wicked. One evil nation will conquer another, only in due course to be conquered by the next to arise. We see this especially in the buildup to the story of Achashverosh, who benefited from usurping the usurpers of Nevuchadnezzar who had destroyed the Beit HaMikdash. We are not meant to be part of this constant squabble over power, prestige, land, and wealth. In our times of greatest urgency, we have seen Hashem come to fight on our behalf, and this is what the prophets promise for the final confrontation preceding the redemption when all of the nations of the world – those who do not accept the sovereignty of Hashem – will be arrayed against us.
In our haftara, Shaul HaMelech fails to live up to his destiny and to destroy the power of evil in the world. Shaul is the Moshiach ben Yosef, a descendant of Yosef like Yehoshua before him, and he has been granted the power to defeat Amalek once and for all. Shaul deviates from the command of Hashem in several particulars but especially in failing to end the life of Agag, king of Amalek, ancestor of Haman. Our tradition teaches that in the time between Agag’s capture and his final end (on which more in a moment), he manages to continue his line – with all of the dire consequences we know too well. The Midrash teaches that one who takes compassion upon the cruel will in the end be cruel to the compassionate. (Midrash Tanchuma Metzora and Yalkut Shimoni 15).
Enter Shmuel. Prophet of Hashem and descendant of Levi, Shmuel is not anybody’s Moshiach (although he anoints one each from Yosef and David), but he is the leading Torah authority of his generation and he knows the halacha regarding Amalek. Shmuel takes a sword and decapitates Agag. He doesn’t hesitate for a moment to do what must be done, just like his cousin and fellow Levite, Pinchas.
We find that this is the best way to defeat Amalek. As a descendant of Esav, Amalek is very shrewd and canny. He is a master of psychological warfare – he uses his mind to manipulate and defeat. So just as the Midrash teaches that Esav was decapitated, so too is Agag in our haftara. One might also say that Esther decapitated Haman by getting him drunk at the party with Achashverosh in order to throw him off his guard. When somebody is drunk their body is no longer under the control of their mind. This is what Esther did to Haman to bring about his downfall.