Saturday, March 19, 2016

Parshas Zachor - The Transactional Error

Zachor is the scriptural remembrance of Amalek's attack on the Jews after leaving Egypt which culminates with the Haftorah, the prophetic reading of King Shaul's war on Amalek, his disobedience before G-d and his rejection as king over Israel. It is read before Purim, which marks the third confrontation between Israel and Amalek.

This week it coincided with Parshas Vayikra, which lays out the laws of many of the sacrifices. Zachor's Haftorah also revolves around sacrifices, the captured animals from Amalek that Shaul decided to bring as sacrifices instead of destroying them as G-d had commanded.

Some wonder why Shaul was punished so harshly with the loss of his kingship for a seemingly light offense. He disobeyed the Divine commandment to destroy all the animals, but he quickly conceded that he was at fault. He sought no personal gain from the loot.

Why was G-d's rejection of him so total?

Shmuel's rebuke of Shaul contains what will become an ongoing theme in the prophetic rebukes of Israel. "Does G-d desire burnt offerings and sacrifices or in obedience to the voice of G-d? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." (Shmuel 1 15:22)

This theme will be repeated until the destruction of the Temple. Its message is that the Jewish relationship with G-d is not transactional. Sacrifices are not a means of appeasing G-d, but an acknowledgement of Him. The view of sacrifices as a transaction in which G-d does something for us and we do something for him corrupts the true relationship between G-d and man.

That corrupting idea was at the root of the downfall of the First Temple. It's a rebuke that recurs time and again. Most harshly in Yeshayah. " To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me."

People do not have a transactional relationship with G-d. Sacrifices are not payment that allow us to do anything we want. Shaul and the people had assumed that they could disobey what G-d told them because they were doing something that "benefited" Him. But as G-d had said, He does not need sacrifices. The sacrifices are a form of obedience. Disobeying G-d undoes the sacrifice.

The Kings of Israel, even when they served G-d, too often lapsed into a transactional relationship in which sacrifices were brought in corruption, e.g. "They lay themselves down beside every altar upon clothes taken in pledge" (Amos 2:8). This was the final outcome of the attitude shown in the aftermath of the war against Amalek. Shaul's action wasn't the worst expression of it, but it was the gateway to it.

By declaring a city Herem, G-d states that it a society is so evil that every aspect of it is meant to be destroyed. Shaul and the people however chose to try and offer these tainted items as sacrifices. They were behaving in much the same way that would lead to a form of corruption in which stolen money was used for sacrifices, in which oppression would reign until G-d would withdraw from the Temple.

As the Sayings of the Fathers declare, "Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you." (Pirkei Avot 1:3) Even though G-d wants us to do specific things and there are rewards, this is not a transactional relationship. Instead it is a personal relationship.

We are meant to serve G-d out of love or fear. Loving relationships are not transactional. You don't do something for someone you love because they are doing something for you. That's a business relationship. It's a commercial relationship. Not only did Shaul not understand what G-d wanted, but he did not even understand the nature of Israel's relationship with G-d.

This was the fundamental difference between Shaul and David. Both men made mistakes, but Shaul did not understand his relationship with G-d.

What connection does this have to Amalek and Zachor? We are meant to remember what Amalek did. But we should also remember why it happened. Amalek attacked after the Jews tested G-d asking, "Is G-d in our midst or not?" after lacking water. Then Amalek attacked. (Exodus 17)

The attitude was transactional. Either G-d gives us water or He isn't here. Either we're getting what we want from G-d or He is useless and probably not around. It's not an uncommon attitude. It states that our relationship with G-d is governed by the benefits that we get from it.

Likewise, it's easy to read the story of Purim as an absence of G-d. G-d is not mentioned once in Megilas Esther. The events can be viewed as transactional. Mordechai took in Esther. Esther was picked to be the queen. Mordechai told Esther about a plot against the king. Haman paid the king money to be able to kill the Jews. The king took the money. But then Esther revealed that she was Jewish. The king was reminded that Mordechai had saved his life first. And Haman was hanged.

But the whole purpose of faith is to see the Hand of G-d in what appears to be coincidental and even what appears to be transactional. "I got a good deal because I was smart." "I worked hard and took the right offer and made lots of money."

Leaving Egypt, the Jews had failed to see that. In Israel, Shaul was aware of G-d, but he viewed the relationship as a transactional one. G-d wants him to fight Amalek. So here are a whole bunch of sacrifices to honor G-d. In Persia, we were back to a transactional world in which G-d didn't even seem to exist. Returning to Israel meant lobbying the Persian monarchy. And Mordechai, by defying Haman, appeared to have not only ruined the best chance for the rebuilding of the Temple, but his defiance was leading to the extermination of the Jews.

And yet Mordechai was correct for he understood what Shaul did not, that the world was not governed purely by the transactional. That if the Temple were restored and sacrifices brought, they had to be clean. That pandering to Haman would prove to be a dead end. That you could not do good by evil means. That using Amalek to bring sacrifices to G-d was an insult to Him and a fundamental misunderstanding of our relationship with G-d.

G-d did not want Amalekite sacrifices. He did not want the Temple rebuilt through Haman.

By rejecting Haman, Mordechai atoned for the actions of his ancestor, Shaul. He showed his belief in a world that was not merely transactional, in a relationship with G-d that was truly meaningful by transcending the transactional.

The corruption of the relationship with G-d into a purely transactional, sacrifices in exchange for tolerating sin, had helped destroy the First Temple. Rebuilding a Second Temple required a rejection of that attitude, as embodied in Pirkei Avot and in Mordechai's defiance of Haman.