We are pleased to share Tamara Worman’s Dvar Torah on Shabbat Zachor from her recent bat mitzvah at Congregation Bonai Shalom.
by Tamara Wurman
Shabbat Shalom. Good morning.
How do we resolve the conflict between our obligation to obey God’s commands and the fact that we have free will?
This Shabbat is called Shabbat “Zachor”. Which literally means the “Shabbat of remembering”. We are supposed to remember. We are obliged to remember, as my maftir states, what the Amalekites did to the Jewish People during our Exodus from Egypt.
The Amalekites were cruel, and attacked the weakest of the Jews without mercy.
My Haftorah describes when Hashem told King Saul to destroy the entire Amalekite nation, including the king Agag, all the men, women, even children, even the best of its animals, because of their past actions, because of their past cruelty. But, Saul disobeys Hashem. He refuses the direct order. My Haftorah examines the moral boundaries and consequences of obedience versus free will. Saul refuses to obey the voice of Hashem. (Well, actually, Saul kills all the Amalekite people, but disobeys and spares Agag and the animals. But that’s beyond the point.) Because of this, Saul is stripped of his title as King. And Hashem and Samuel kill Agag and his animals anyway.
The Hebrew Gematria, or numerology, for the word “Amalek” is the same as the work “Safek” or Doubt, both having the value: 240.
Referring to the Hebrew word for doubt, some say that Saul was simply weak, and in the literal translation from Hebrew, it appears that he gave in to the doubting words of the army sent with him to kill the Amalekites. However, I believe something more than doubt influenced Saul’s choice. I believe that Saul, along with many other Jewish people with him, struggled with the balance between morality versus absolute obedience to Hashem.
Many parts of the Torah are left to our interpretation. That is a good thing. One thing I find especially interesting in Judaism is the vast range of ideas and interpretations that can flow from just a few phrases. Genesis was explicit that the entire universe was created in six days, that Eve was created from a rib bone. But, many of us choose to interpret these words as parable, or in other less-than-explicit fashions. While we believe that God had a role in creating the world, we also believe the modern science of evolution. Can this type of flexibility also apply to other portions of the Torah, even to the point of questioning the command for absolute obedience to God? God commanded Saul “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”. This order was very clear, and not open to interpretation. So why did Saul disobey these very clear orders? I think that Saul indeed had doubt. He may have had fear. He probably was influenced by his peers.
Amalekites are said to have brought doubt wherever they went, and that’s part of the reason Hashem ordered them to be destroyed. When Saul went to “destroy the whole nation without mercy” he began to doubt. Through that doubt, Saul began to examine what he thought was right, what he thought was moral. Killing an entire nation violated those morals.
But yet, many believe that Saul should have followed the word of Hashem simply because Hashem always knows what is right. According to the Talmud tractate Yoma, Rabi Mani stated “Saul analyzed the mitzvah of destroying Amalek and found it to be inconsistent with his notion of justice and compassion. He should have fulfilled the mitzvah simply because it was in G-d’s commandment.” God’s orders were brutal. They go far beyond what many people, including me, can live by today. Today, many believe that killing for revenge, even revenge for extremely heinous deeds, is immoral.
We have moved well beyond the Hammurabi “an eye for an eye.” During World War II, the Germans committed horrible crimes against the Jewish people. Yet I think it would have been wrong to “spare no one, but kill alike all German men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses” in revenge. Recently, some Muslims and Arab nations have done cruel things to the Jews and many other people, including Americans.
I want to protect the Jewish people, Americans, and others in the world, against these crimes. But I do not believe that killing all the people in the offending nations in revenge would be moral. Even though people do horrible things, I find it wrong to simply give up and abandon my conviction in our shared humanity. We share the right to exist, as humans, as God’s children, even those who have done horrible things.
I struggle with how to resolve the violence, the God-sanctioned or even God-ordered … brutality in the Torah with my morals, my beliefs in the shared humanity of all people, even the humanity of our enemies. Genesis teaches us that God drowned nearly every person on Earth in the Flood. In Exodus God killed every single firstborn child of Egypt, even innocent infants, during the Plagues.
How can this have been just? How can this have been moral?
God has given us, me, free will for a reason. This is taught throughout the Torah. In parshat Pirkei Avot it states “Everything is foreseen, but free will is given.” God gave Saul an order. But, by giving Saul free will, God also gave Saul the power of choice, the power to disobey. God’s gift of free will and His commandment to obey Him seem somewhat contradictory. I can’t figure out how to resolve this apparent inconsistency. Maybe God didn’t intend us to be able to resolve it.
But, I believe that God gave us free will for good reasons. As an adult Jew, I will use my free will to make the best and most moral choices that I can. Faced with the same order God gave Saul, I would use my God-given power of free will to disobey. Faced with an order to kill the Amalekites, I would disobey even more than Saul. Saul only spared the King and finest of the animals. I would spare the children too. The children were certainly innocent of the crimes of their parents.
Now, this all sounds nice. It is easy to stand here, as a 13-year-old girl in the safe city of Boulder, and say “live and let live”. But, I read the Torah in a modern, difficult, even world, and these questions have become even more complex. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said “The Torah is a commentary on the world, the world is a commentary on the Torah”. It is not always as simple as refusing to kill. For example, it is certainly moral to kill someone in self-defense. But is it moral to kill someone who may commit a crime in the distant future, someone who is just planning a murder? I am conflicted about the morality of using drones to kill people who are, or may be, planning to kill.
In some sense, it is self-defense. But, the targets haven’t yet committed the crime, just thought about it or planned to do it. As we go down this road, do we risk punishing people for what George Orwell called “thought crime”?
When does self-defense become justified? When the potential future criminal thinks about the crime? When he/she starts to plan it? When he/she is mid-plan? Or only when the crime is imminent? So, was it moral to kill the Amalekites in “self-defense” because they would nearly certainly kill Jews in the future? Maybe. But what about killing the Amalekite children?
I am certain that the Jewish people and America will face future enemies who will commit horrible crimes against us. Some of the children of current Hamas fighters are likely to become terrorists themselves. Yet, I don’t think that justifies killing those children in “self-defense”. This humane morality comes with risk with a cost. An Amalekite, or German, or Hamas baby might grow up to be a terrorist and kill someone. But, they may not. Using my God-given free will, I choose to accept that risk, consistent with my humanity, our shared humanity.
As I mature into a Jewish adult, I, like Saul, am transitioning from one who just obeys orders (from my parents) to a young woman who has free will. Soon I will be exercising my own free will, making my own choices. I will make choices of which my previous “bosses” (my parents) disapprove. I will make mistakes. I may choose to become a Republican or Democrat. To marry or not. To have children or not. To be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a safari guide.
God has given me this gift of free will. My parents, my grandparents, my community, my synagogue, my Rabbi, my teachers, and the Torah continue to give me the wisdom to use free will wisely.
This Shabbat we are called to remember Saul’s choice, his exercise of free will, and how we are blessed with the ability to choose to be moral in these modern and difficult times.
Thank you to everyone who has helped me through this journey: Rabbi Marc, my close friends, Ruth Seagull, Yehudis Fishman, my B’nai mitzvah Class, and, especially, my Grandparents, Parents, and Siblings
I’m not quite done yet.
For my mitzvah project, I have been volunteering for Head Start. I have interacted and played with children while their parents were introduced to the program. Now, the idea of killing an entire nation doesn’t really come in discussions with toddlers. But, even small children can learn to respect and love all people, to not judge entire nations based on the actions of their worst members. Reading to children and learning is one of the ways all people can learn to branch out and formulate independent and free opinions.
All children can learn to understand and appreciate our diverse world. We can learn not only what it is to be a Jew, but the many ways different people around the world share our humanity.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.
Yasher koach, Tamara! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults. Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.