Beit Midrash

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The Necessary Boundaries of Seeking Leadership


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

In the past, we have discussed the midrash (Vayikra Rabba 26) that links the first pasuk of Emor to the story of the massacre of Nov, the city of kohanim. Hashem showed Moshe the leaders of each and every generation, and Moshe was disturbed that Shaul, the first king of Israel, would be stabbed to death. Hashem’s answer was "emor el hakohanim" (say: for the kohanim): in other words, it was a result of Shaul’s command to kill out the city due to his understanding that they supported David in what Shaul saw as a budding revolt against his dynasty.
Naturally involved in that horrible event due to his role as responsible for internal security in Shaul’s regime was Avner ben Ner. What his specific role was is less clear. We are told that the servants of Shaul did not agree to carry out the assassination order (Shmuel I, 22:17). The Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 10:2) says that the one who refused was Avner, and for this he is to be praised. Yet, we do find that Avner was himself killed a few years later by Yoav ben Tzruyah, David’s chief of staff, after David had come to an agreement with him that would end the civil war between Shaul’s son, whom Avner had supported, in return for a prominent post in David’s administration. For what sin was he punished?
One answer is provided by the gemara in Sanhedrin (20a). It says that he should have protested against Shaul’s decree. Apparently, it is not enough to refuse to carry out an unethical command of a king, but one must try to undo the command, which Avner failed to do. A second opinion in that gemara claims that he did try to stop Shaul but that he was punished for holding back David’s ascent to a unified throne for over two years. His efforts to end the civil war were too little or at least too late in this regard.
A third opinion is found in the Yerushalmi (Peah 1:1) regarding a different element of the tension between Shaul and David. David twice came close to Shaul in a manner that he could have killed him but did not, to prove to Shaul that he had no intentions to cause him harm. Once David cut off the corner of Shaul’s garment, and once he took his water pitcher and his sword. These events almost overcame Shaul’s paranoia in regard to David but were a great source of embarrassment to Avner, who was responsible for Shaul’s safety. According to this approach, Avner convinced Shaul that David had just chanced upon Shaul’s property and did not in fact get close enough to kill him, thus keeping the feud going and causing much unnecessary hatred and bloodshed.
Whichever approach we may accept, they all have one common denominator that is worthwhile to remember this time of year, during sefira. While different people are expected to have different viewpoints and interests, it is of utmost importance that these not spill over into animosity which all too often has tragic circumstances.
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