At the center of this week’s portion of Ki Tissa is the worship of the Golden Calf, but I believe more important than the sin is the lesson of Divine Mercy as an answer for our propensity to sin. We are taught the thirteen attributes of Hashem which we repeat whenever we beseech the Al-Mighty for compassion and forgiveness in the face of our transgressions. And we hear the words which man always longs to hear, Salachti KidVarecha – I have forgiven according to your request.
King Solomon writes in Proverbs that a righteous man can fall seven times and still rise up. We say modeh veozev, admit and leave your sin, yerucham – and Hashem will grant forgiveness.
With this in mind, one must be puzzled by the Haftara which we read on Shabbat Zachor. The prophet Samuel conveys to King Saul, Hashem's command to wage battle against the Amalekites, and to leave no survivors—neither human nor beast. Saul mobilizes the Israelite military and attacks Amalek. They kill the entire population with the exception of the king, Agag, and they also spare the best of the cattle and sheep.
Hashem reveals Himself to Samuel. "I regret that I have made Saul king," G d says. "For he has turned back from following Me, and he has not fulfilled My words."
The next morning Samuel travels to Saul and confronts him. Saul does not even know that he has done anything wrong. The verse writes, and Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, "May you be blessed of the L-rd; I have fulfilled the word of the L-rd."
When Samuel pressed Saul on the sound of the sheep in the distance and Saul’s failure to comply with Hashem’s command, Saul defends himself, saying that the cattle were spared to be used as sacrificial offerings for G d. Samuel explains that this was wrong. Saul admits his wrongdoing with the words “Hatati – I have sinned, for I transgressed the L-rd’s words, for I feared the people and I hearkened to their voice.”
Saul invites the prophet to join him on his return home. Samuel refuses his offer. "The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you, today; and has given it to your fellow who is better than you." Again Saul admits his sin begging Samuel to accompany him so that the King can pray to Hashem. Agag is executed. Most likely the animals were killed. Apparently Saul has within 24 hours not only admitted his sin, not only has he regretted and promised to do better, he has fixed his sin.
The chapter closes by telling us that Samuel did not return to Saul again. The door was closed and forgiveness was not to come.
And the question is why? We know that Saul was "exceptional and fine; there was no one in Israel finer than him; from his shoulders and up, he stood taller than the rest." These words teach of his humility and greatness. The rabbis suggest that until this point he never sinned. And what of the rest of his life?
The end is near and King Saul is on the verge of going to war to defend Israel from the Philistines, but before doing so wants to know whether he will be successful. Since Samuel had died already, Saul secretly goes to a witch to temporarily bring Samuel back from the dead. Saul sees the image of Samuel and hears the voice of the prophet which closes by explaining, “And the L-rd will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow, you and your sons will be with me.” Rashi comments on “with me” as being in my abode. The Rabbis explain that Samuel resides in the highest levels of Heaven and Saul is promised that he too will reside there indicating his greatness is matched by few others.
All this simply compounds and complicates the question. Saul is certainly a saint so why did Hashem refuse to forgive him? In fact why did he not even give Saul a chance at forgiveness?
I believe the answer can be found in this week’s portion with Moses, our first and ultimate leader. After the Sin, when Hashem told him that He would destroy the Jewish people because of the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe responds: “If You would, forgive their sin. And if not, please obliterate me from the book You have written.”
By making this statement, Moshe offered to sacrifice more than his life; he was willing to give up even his soul. “The book You have written” refers to the entire Torah. The rabbis say that each letter represents a soul of each of the children of Israel who left Egypt. Having your name erased means having your soul erased. Furthermore Moshe is identified with the Torah and he dedicated his soul for it, still he was, nevertheless, willing to sacrifice his connection with the Torah for the sake of Jewish people.
Rabbi Abittan always explained that leadership involves self-sacrifice to the point of eliminating self-concern entirely. A true leader identifies totally with his people and their purpose, and is willing to give up everything for them. Moses exemplified this type of leadership.
Moses was the most humble of all people yet when we come down to it, he allows everything to fall on his shoulders never yielding to the blame game.
Hashem offered to make a new nation from Moses, but Moses refused to throw the people under the bus no matter their guilt.
I believe that in understanding Moses’ greatness, we can understand Saul’s failure.
When confronted with the sound of bleating sheep, Saul responds that it was they (the people) who brought them (the cattle and sheep) and had pity on them. It’s the proverbial, “I’m sorry, BUT …”
And the answer lies in prophet’s response: “And Samuel said, "Although you are small (humble) in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?”
Apparently Saul only listened to the people out of his own humility rather than any nefarious reason. Although his humility may have been second to only Moses, and although he was completely righteous, he failed in the most important of leadership qualities. A leader must lead. Saul instead appeared to lead but in reality followed his people.
This advice is crucial is to relates all leaders today, especially the rabbinate. Too many are so afraid of their congregants and benefactors that they either lead by poll rather than lead by that which is right or lead with self-preservation most important in their mind.
The Talmud tells us than in the generation before Mashiach, the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog. What does the Talmud mean?
A dog walks in front of its master; the dog appears to lead, yet at each fork and corner, the dog always looks back to see where its master wants it to go. In the same way too many leaders of this generation lack conviction and direction. When pressed instead of doing what’s right, they look back to see which way political convenience and convention wants them to go. And when pressed, instead of protecting their flock, they act in self-preservation; they throw anyone under the bus.
Too many synagogues look to hire rabbis they can “control” instead of the true leaders we need. We must sacrifice our desire for control and avoid leaders who not only look back for direction, because we will end up with those who look ahead primarily to protect themselves and their paychecks. We need leaders who are bound only to Heaven and set their sights only upward for direction.
By: Rabbi David Bibi