Jewish tradition associates both retribution and mercy with memory. Memories of past actions and relationships, and of our covenant, can motivate reprisal or compassion: “Remember what Amalek did to you…that you shall blot out its memory from the earth.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) Likewise, “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided.” (Genesis 8:1)
This rabbinic aphorism details the corruption of the relationships among memory, vengeance, and mercy. In context, it references King Saul’s regressive choices: He saved an Amalekite leader (and his nation’s livestock), but he massacred Jewish priests who had (unknowingly) provided food for his enemy. Saul chose to “forget” the cruelty of Amalek and his requirement to avenge it*; in the same way, he also chose to forget his commitment to his compassionate co-religionists.
Saul privileged the advantages of the present over his obligation to the past. The Amalekite king and his wealth offered Saul power and access, while (even accidentally) disloyal priests threatened to subvert his power. This was not an instance of mercy, but one of ambition cloaked in values language.
This ancient illustration touches on perennial human questions: How often do we forsake past commitments in favor of practical gains in the present? How quickly do yesterday’s memories fade when they compromise the opportunities of today? What reminders can orient us toward these questions in more thoughtful ways?
*Note: The ethical implications of the commandment to destroy Amalek are not uncomplicated, but they are beyond the scope of this brief commentary.
I prefer to read King Saul as a tragic figure rather than as a cynical politician employing moralistic arguments to further a selfish agenda. Saul is not evil; his fatal flaw is that he lacks self-awareness, and this makes him relevant to us.
The Torah bids us to remember many things — among them, the Sabbath, the Exodus, the commandments, and the transformative moment of standing at Sinai. Memory is the impression that has been imprinted upon our consciousness by past experience. By interpreting these impressions, we invest them with meaning. Hence, Jewish tradition is an interpretive tradition. We continually re-encounter our ancient texts, simultaneously breathing new meaning into them while drawing guidance from them.
Both the biblical narrative and the rabbinic aphorism indicate that Saul felt compassion toward the Amalekite king. But how does Saul interpret this felt compassion? We have a right to expect that Saul would exercise self-analysis and introspection. Is Saul’s compassion appropriate? Or do self-interest and cowardice cloud his judgment and condition his emotional response? Saul’s failure at self-scrutiny is his Achilles heel.
At times, we are all King Saul. I would rephrase Elana Stein Hain’s last question. How can we know that we are interpreting ourselves and the circumstances around us honestly?
The truth is, that we cannot know, but we can try. The first step is self-scrutiny. Next, is to surround ourselves with external reminders, such as a mezuzah and tzitzit, as the Torah prescribes. Third, is to collaborate with others we trust and respect who will help keep us honest. Finally, as the biblical narrative of King Saul demonstrates, what is true for the individual is also true of governmental authority. Therefore, on the level of governance, we need to contraposition institutions that keep power in check.
I’m thinking about the photo that circulated after the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. In it, white supremacists wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods, waving Confederate flags, and thrusting their arms out in the Nazi salute are being protected by a black police officer from the protesters who are rallying against them. By protecting the white supremacists’ right of assembly and free speech, the black officer was showing compassion to the cruel. But white supremacists hurling hateful epithets at the black man who was protecting them was an act of cruelty to the compassionate.
When I first saw the photo, I wished that the officer would step aside to allow the angry crowd to break through the crime scene tape and pummel the Klansmen. But I know that the path to change is through compassion — fostering communication, nurturing understanding, and building bridges — not through violence or hate.
While I might be tempted to wish for cruelty toward those I see acting cruelly to others, the fact remains: Violence has never changed any political situation for the better. Perhaps the questions we should be asking are these: How can we feel compassionate toward those who act with cruelty? How can we use compassion, rather than cruelty, to effect change?
I hope that we, as Jews, can evolve beyond a binary way of thinking — of believing that we are either compassionate or cruel, good or evil — and come to an understanding that we, individually and collectively, often flip-flop between being the oppressor and being the victim, between acting with compassion and acting with cruelty.