Perils of Inaction

Inaction and restraint seem to be gaining momentum among leaders these days. In the current run for the White House, both of these qualities have been in short supply in response to the current frontrunners which feature the most experienced running against the least experienced.  But rather than know what to do, present leaders earn their credits by demonstrating what not to do.

“Barack Obama is gambling” concludes Jeffrey Goldberg in his exceptional analysis “that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.” And Jeffrey Rosen has just published a helpful introduction to Judge Merrick Garland’s particular approach to Judicial restraint.

This week’s pre-Purim prophetic portion (Haftarah) reminds us that restraint, in addition to being Presidential or Judicial, can also be Monarchical.  It has long been assumed that King Saul, biblical Israel’s first monarch, loses his crown for his inaction.  Because the narrative culminates with Samuel’s beheading of Amalek’s surviving King, many draw the conclusion that Saul inaction, his misplaced compassion, is the cause of his demise.  Saul’s reign must be finished because he failed to finish off the enemy.

But a careful reading of the passage reveals that Saul is actually punished, not for what he failed to do, but for what he did do.  When the Prophet Samuel’s rebukes Saul he incredulously asks, “What is this bleating of sheep in my ears?  Why did you disobey the Lord and swoop down on the spoil in defiance of the Lord’s will?” (I Sam. 15:14, 19)   Saul is guilty of having benefited from war by hoarding choice sheep as spoils of war.  Saul is punished, not for being soft on crime, but for wealth accumulation from war.   Benefitting from the battlefield corrupts even the deep worthiness of self-defense.  To this day, the Israeli Defense Force’s standard of ‘purity of arms’ proscribes any reward for violence that is unavoidable for the sake of security.

Restraint and inaction can prove to be helpful habits, especially in our world of uninhibited invective.  Yet this week’s prophetic lesson reminds us that corruption may be reaped even where restraint is sown.  May we earn the leaders who appreciate the more helpful blend of action and inaction by the examples we set and live.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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