Parashat Matot recounts the story of the attack on the Midianites. The Pasuk reads (BeMidbar 31:2), "Nekom Nikmat Bnei Yisrael MeiEit HaMidyanim Achar Tei’aseif El Amecha," "Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; then you will be gathered to your people." Each tribe sends soldiers out to fight and they return with the women, children, and goods of Midyan as spoils. Upon their return Moshe greets them with anger. He asks rhetorically (BeMidbar 31:15), "HaChiyitem Kol Nekeivah," "Did you let all of the women live?” He is upset that the women, who, as recorded earlier (BeMidbar 25:9), had previously seduced the men and led to a plague of 24,000 deaths, are not punished.
This seems parallel to a story told in Shmuel Alef (Perek 15). In that Perek, Bnei Yisrael war with Amaleik, and some of the animals are saved from Amaleik with the intent to use them as Korbanot to serve Hashem. This seems like a noble idea because Sha’ul attempts to elevate the animals of Amaleik to fulfill a holy purpose. However, Sha’ul is rebuked for his failure to fulfill Hashem’s command to destroy all of Amaleik and the kingship is removed from his family.
The responses to these two stories are very different. In the first one, Moshe has the women killed and there is no further punishment. Those who are Tamei are purified and the remaining spoils are divided. Sha’ul, on the other hand, receives much harsher repercussions, namely, loss of the throne. When Shmuel confronts him, Sha’ul responds that the people took the animals for Korbanot. The Malbim and others comment that Sha’ul is using the people as his scapegoats. By placing the responsibility on others, Sha’ul hopes that he can get out of trouble. This fails horribly as the text reads (Shmuel I 15:26), "VaYomer Shmuel El Sha’ul Lo Ashuv Imach Ki Ma'astah Et Devar Hashem VaYimasecha Hashem MiHyot Melech Al Yisrael," "And Shmuel said to Sha’ul, ‘I will not return with you for you rejected the word of Hashem and Hashem rejected you from being king of Israel.’”
What is the difference between the case of the Midianites and that of Sha’ul? Why does Sha’ul lose his kingdom while Bnei Yisrael have almost no repercussions? It is possible to suggest that the difference lies within the response to the criticism presented to each party. While Sha’ul may have erred for the purpose of serving God, when he is rebuked, he cannot admit his fault. He immediately blames his nation.
A leader must take responsibility for his actions. Sha’ul fails to do this, and instead blames his nation. Our model king is David. He is not perfect and, in fact, sins a number of times. In Parashat VaYikra an interesting phrase used. It reads (VaYikra 4:22), "Asher Nasi Yecheta," "When a leader will sin." Following this, the Torah states the procedure for atonement. The commentators are puzzled by this verse. Why is the text assuming that a leader will sin while for other people it uses more mild terminology? Seforno (ad. loc. s.v. Asher Nasi Yecheta) answers that it is expected that leaders will sin. The Gemara (Bava Batra 17a) records four individuals who never sinned. These people are Binyamin, the son of Ya’akov, Amram, the father of Moshe, Yishai, the father of David, and Kil’av, the son of David. They are recorded in this manner, each one listed as he is related to a famous leader. These are four people about who little is told in Tanach. Because they are all directly related to famous leaders it appears as though they are being contrasted. A message that can be taken from this is that while some people are perfect and should be praised for it, leaders, who get things done, must take risks and possibly sin. Since there is no success without some failures, the true task of a leader is to properly repent when mistakes are made.
That is what Sha’ul fails to do. As a leader he needs to accept his error and take responsibility to fix it. When he is unable to do so, it becomes clear that he isn’t fit to lead and he loses his power. We should learn from this message and take responsibility for our mistakes. By doing this we can be more successful and achieve more than when we blame our peers.