The special maftir reading for the Shabbat before Purim is known as Zachor (“remember”). In this reading (Deuteronomy 25:17–19), we are commanded to remember and never forget the actions of Amalek, the nation who first attacked the Jewish people for no reason other than pure hatred. The Torah commands us to wipe out Amalek when circumstances allow us to.

The haftarah recounts the story of a time when Amalek was almost eliminated, but not quite entirely.

For the first time in their history, the Jews were united under the rule of their own king. It was also the first time since their earliest days in the land that a Jewish army on a national scale could be mobilized. The king, also the commander in chief, was now told that an important mission lay ahead of him. The time had now come for Amalek to be annihilated once and for all.

The instruction to King Saul had come to him via the prophet Samuel. Saul was to lead an army and wage war with Amalek, and not leave any trace of them. This included their possessions as well. Saul, however, failed to carry out the instructions fully. Saul and his men had spared a number of good-looking animals that came their way, as well as Agag, the enemy king. They felt they could make an exception, as it was appropriate to offer these animals as sacrifices of thanksgiving to G‑d. Whatever the idea was in sparing Agag and the animals, the fact was that this ran contrary to G‑d’s explicit instruction.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time Saul had blundered this way. On a previous occasion, before Saul fought the Philistines, Samuel had instructed him to wait with the attack until Samuel would arrive and make an offering to G‑d. After a seven-day wait, the people began to desert and hide, fearing a major attack by the Philistines. In desperation, Saul proceeded to offer the sacrifice, only for Samuel to arrive just then.

Saul had demonstrated that he was not the choicest man of all Israel who was fit to be their king. Although Saul was otherwise tremendously righteous, the Torah warns that a king may not “stray from the commandment to the right or to the left.” Now, after the war with Amalek, Samuel reprimanded Saul for his conduct, starting by making note of the animals whose sounds he heard. Saul, however, did not understand what was wrong. He had obeyed everything G‑d had said, these animals and Agag being worthy exceptions. It was only after Samuel went on to explain to Saul the fundamental mistake he was making that the point sank in: “Has the L‑rd as much desire in burnt offerings and peace offerings, as in obeying the voice of the L‑rd? Behold, to obey is better than a peace offering; to hearken [is better] than the fat of rams.”

Saul now understood, and asked for his sin to be forgiven. Samuel explained that G‑d had already distanced Saul from being king, as his leadership was fundamentally flawed. Still, he did agree to honor Saul in front of the people and not publicly denounce him. The haftarah concludes with Samuel personally slaying Agag the king of Amalek, in punishment for the terrible acts he had committed as king.

Total annihilation

The haftarah describes the instruction of G‑d to Saul to annihilate not only the people of Amalek, but even their animals and possessions. It was Saul’s failure to do this that caused G‑d to take the kingship away from him.

An analysis of biblical stories and commandments will reveal that the total destruction of a place or group is usually not entrusted to the hands of man. For the most part, the Torah allows a king or a court of law to punish an individual for an action he or she perpetrated. Collective punishment is usually prohibited, for it is an injustice against those who are innocent.

To be sure, there are many cases in the Torah where wholesale punishment came for the sin of the leaders or a majority of a group. An example of this is Sodom and Gomorrah, where entire cities were destroyed—men, women, children and all—for the sins of a majority of their inhabitants. During the rebellion of Korach against Moses, the entire families and belongings of Korach and his followers were swallowed up by the ground. This form of retribution, however, is usually reserved for G‑d. Only He, with His reasons that are unfathomable to us, can administer such a form of punishment. To use the words of the Midrash with regards to the story of Korach, “Come and see how severe is dissension! The earthly courts do not punish until an accused has [reached the age of majority and grown] two [pubic] hairs, and the heavenly court does not punish until one reaches the age of twenty, but here even nursing babes were punished.”1

One of the exceptions to this was here. G‑d commanded man—Saul and his army—to utterly destroy any remnant of both Amalek and all that belonged to them. Why was this case different? Was this not an act that crossed the line of human permission?

A possible explanation can be found in the words of the Sefer Hachinuch in his explanation of the mitzvah to destroy Amalek:

“Among the roots of this commandment are: to put into our hearts that anyone who distresses Israel is despised in front of G‑d, blessed be He; and that his downfall and evil fate will be commensurate with his evil and the great damage he caused with his deceptions. As we find with Amalek: due to the fact that he committed a great evil to Israel—that he was the first to harm them—[G‑d], blessed be He, commanded us to ‘destroy his memory from the earth’ and root it out after him utterly.”

In other words, the reason G‑d commanded the Jews to do this was for their own sake. Had Amalek been destroyed by a natural disaster or by another invading enemy, this message might have been lost on the Jews. Because G‑d wanted the Jews to learn this lesson, He therefore commanded them to do something that would usually only be within His jurisdiction to do.

The kindness of the Kenites

“Saul said to the Kenite, ‘Turn away and go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them—but you did kindness with all the children of Israel, when they went up out of Egypt.’ So the Kenites turned away from amidst Amalek.”

Who were these Kenites, and when did they deal kindly with Israel?

Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, is referred to in the Torah by seven different names. One of them is “Keni.” The message that Saul sent was to the descendants of Jethro. His reference to the “kindness” to Israel after the Exodus is understood in a few different ways:

1. After their encounter with Moses at the well, the daughters of Jethro came home and told their father that “an Egyptian man saved us from the hands of the shepherds, and he even drew water for us and gave the sheep to drink.” The daughters of Jethro had been treated badly by the local shepherds, and Moses came to their rescue. “Then where is he?” asked Jethro. “Invite him in, and let him eat bread.” It was this act of hospitality shown to the future leader of Israel that was the “kindness” Saul referred to.2

2. When Jethro came to join his son-in-law and the Jewish people, the verse relates how he made an offering to G‑d, followed by a party to which Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel were invited. This act of graciousness towards the leaders of the people was regarded as if he had done so for the entire people, and was something the Jews held with great esteem for generations to come.3

3. A number of commentaries take it as a reference to the concern Jethro showed for the affairs of Moses and the people. The Torah tells the story of how Moses was seen judging the people from morning till night, thus tiring out both himself and the people. It was upon Jethro’s advice that a hierarchy of judges was appointed, enabling the proper function of the judicial system. The Jews were very grateful for this display of concern.4