Shaul and the Roots of the Contemporary Leadership Vacuum

More 6th Grade Torah, from this past Friday, with an add-on related to the situation in Israel:

Shmuel Aleph, Perek 15: Shaul’s latest blunder comes in his second war with Amalek. Despite Hashem’s explicit command to the contrary (15:3), Shaul and the Jews let King Agag live (15:8-9), along with some of the better Amaleki cattle (15:9) which they will offer as a Korban to Hashem. Upon being called out on the infraction by Shmuel, Shaul appears at first to shift the blame to the Jews (15:15) – מעמלקי הביאום, אשר חמל העם, [these animals] are from the Amalekites, upon whom the [Jewish] Nation had mercy. But Shmuel will have none of it, instead chastising Shaul for the latter’s own lack of leadership (15:17): הלא, אם קטוֹן אתה בעיניך, ראש שבטי ישראל אתה, וימשחך ה’ למלך על ישראל – although you may be small in your own eyes, you are nevertheless the head of the tribes of Israel, and Hashem has anointed you King over all the Jews!

Three commentators’ insights to this pivotal interlude amount to a triumvirate of lessons on Jewish leadership which, as we will develop, may be uniquely important in our time.

1) Whose Mistake?
I heard a beautiful quote once: “one can delegate authority, but not responsibility.” Radak (15:17 – הלא) makes that point here in connection with Shaul. Although it may have been the Jews who requested that Shaul save Agag and the animals (actually, as my students noticed, that is not at all clear from 15:9), Shaul is nonetheless as responsible as they are. As their (albeit unwitting) leader, Shaul has the choice either to prevent the Jews from doing wrong or to accept full responsibility for their actions – actions which, by failing to voice his disapproval, Shaul implied were in compliance with his desire as well. As Radak puts it:

לא עשו הם, אלא אתה! שהיה בידך למחות (to protest), ולא מחית; נראה כי רצונך וחפצך היה בדבר, וחמדת השלל!

A leader cannot so divorce himself from the actions of his charges as to absolve himself of the responsibility due their actions; by failing to prevent them from erring, he is as complicit in their actions as are they. This, according to Radak, was what Shaul failed to understand and what led to his downfall, and it is a powerful lesson for all Jewish leaders.

One of the students made the intriguing point that Shaul did not appear humble in shifting the blame to the Jews (“מעמלקי הביאום, אשר חמל העם“), but Shmuel nonetheless assigns humility to Shaul (“הלא אם קטוֹן אתה בעיניך”). This points to Shmuel’s desire to soften his condemnation of Shaul as much as possible, and it portends the end of our Perek, where we learn that Shmuel mourned Shaul as long as he lived.

2) Agent of Whom?
picks up on the later part of our verse in identifying Shmuel’s condemnation of Shaul: הלא, אם קטוֹן אתה בעיניך, ראש שבטי ישראל אתה – וימשחך ה’ למלך על ישראל. What gave you the idea, says Shmuel, to act upon the dictates of the Jews? You were anointed by Hashem! This is not a democracy, Shaul, this is an autocracy – and the monarch is Hashem, with you as His agent! Shaul’s mistake, says Malbim, lay in his failing to recognize the true origin of his own power. He was the leader of the People, but not by the People. The Jews’ pressuring Shaul to save Agag and the animals should have had no impact on his decision-making whatsoever. Consider, for example, a classroom of students who feel, not surprisingly, that they should spend the day running around outside. Were their foolish teacher to comply with their request, he would face the wrath of the Principal, who would likely and justifiably say something like, “They didn’t hire you, I did!” Shaul similarly failed to remember that it was not the Jews who “hired” him but Hashem, and likewise that it was only Hashem to whom that Shaul needed to feel that his actions would be held accountable.

3) Who’s Your Daddy?
Targum, quoted by Rashi, calls up historical antecedent to condemn Shaul, homiletically rendering the “ראש שבטי ישראל אתה” portion of Shmuel’s dressing-down as a call for Shaul to consider his proud Binyamini heritage. Remember, says Shmuel, that it was your own Binyamini ancestors who were the first tribe to venture into the Sea after leaving Mitzrayim! You are a member of ראש שבטי ישראל – the first of all tribes, the tribe who acted with alacrity and enthusiasm in your service of Hashem!
My students developed this line of reasoning by taking it one step further: How can you say, Shaul, that you were “unable” to impact the wayward Jews around you? Why, that is exactly what your own ancestors did, and so that is what you should have done as well!
One of my students ingeniously and creatively pointed out that Binyamin was the youngest tribe, the Ben Zekunim, the one that could most easily be excused for harboring an inferiority complex of the type that Shmuel hints at here: הלא אם קטוֹן בעיניך. But this is not valid, says Shmuel, because ראש שבטי ישראל אתה – your tribe arose from the smallness of its origins to assert vital leadership at a critical time! No less was expected of you now, Shaul, and your failure to realize or act upon this expectation led to your saddening downfall.

4) Contemporary Implications
Three commentators, three approaches to Shaul’s undoing – shifting blame towards others (Radak), misplacing the object of his authority (Malbim), forgetting for what reason he was invested with authority in the first place (Targum / Rashi). Considering these indictments of Shaul, my mind moves eastward – לבי במזרח – as I try to make sense of what has happened in Israel recently.

The saddening but understandable tendency by many to believe that more than a mere handful would condone the shocking actions perpetrated on students simply walking to school is not the failure of those few perpetrators, or of the many conscientious objectors, or of the doting media – it is the failure of the leaders, whose responsibility it is to take the hard step of condemning vulgarity in their ranks even (or perhaps especially) when it is uncomfortable for them to do so. Like Shaul, with his misplaced humility and tendency to conveniently avoid conflict with his constituents, the Chareidi community of today, it seems to me, is faced with a generation of unwitting and myopic leaders who, while massive Talmidei Chachamim whose heels I may never reach in learning, operate in the throes of a dangerous social contract: to retain the authority invested in them by the masses, who shield them from criticism and grant them unchecked authority, they simultaneously and concurrently remain clouded from being able to speak rationally about the very people whom they lead. It is hard to believe that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would have stood silently at a time like this, or even Rav Shach. Those were leaders with sound judgment and strong character who did not fall back on the argument that הלא, קטוֹן בעיני – I am not deserving of leadership anyway, so I will pretend that it has not been granted to me. Those were leaders who understood the moral imperative that they had to speak up, even when it was difficult. They did not shift blame to others, be it Hashem (as someone showed me over Shabbat), the media, or the left-of-Chareidi Israel public. They understood that Jewish leaders are subject only to the dictates of Hashem, and not to people who would have those leaders pledge their allegiance. They remembered their proud heritage, that they were merely links in a chain of leaders who, like Nachshon Ben Aminadav as an individual or the tribe of Binyamin collectively, stood up at the most difficult times and made statements that would change the course of a river – and that of history. Today’s Chareidi leaders are all too aware of the public contract under which they operate: approve of our actions, however vulgar they may be; and we will protect you, shield you, and allow you to act with impunity.

Shaul and the Jews had the same contract. But that generation also had a Shmuel. The question is … who will be our Shmuel?

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