Category Archives: Shemuel II

Shemuel Bet Chapter 24 – CONCLUSION!!!

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 24 Conclusion

This chapter concludes not only Shemuel Bet but the entire Book of Shemuel. For a reason left unexplained in the text, Hashem intends to punish Israel and therefore entices David to initiate a census of the population. His general, Yoav, is resistant to the idea, and attempts to persuade David to abandon the project. However, David insists on having the census conducted, and Yoav oversees the project for a span of nine months and twenty days.

As soon as the numbers are reported back to him, David regrets having ordered the counting of the Jewish people, and confesses his error. The prophet Gad is sent to David with a message from Hashem. David will have to choose one of three punishments: a seven year famine, three months of flight from his enemies, or a three day plague upon the nation. David famously responds that it is better that they fall into the hands of Hashem who is abundantly merciful than to subject themselves to the whims of other human beings, so he chooses the plague (a famine is considered to be “falling into the hands of man” because the resultant economic crisis would force the nation of Israel to depend on other nations for sustenance.)

The plague begins and the destructive angel approaches Jerusalem; at this point, David beseeches Hashem, asking Him to punish him and his family who are the transgressors, not the innocent people who committed no wrong. The prophet instructs David to approach Aravna the Jebusite, who owns a granary on a mountain outside the city, and to build an altar there.

David immediately visits Aravna and is greeted with great deference and respect; Aravna is willing to give him the granary immediately, in addition to some animals for sacrifice. David refuses to accept the gift and insists on paying Aravna for the land as well as the offerings. Once he has completed the sacrificial service, the plague is discontinued and the land once again found favor in the eyes of Hashem. This threshing-floor became the site of the future Holy Temple.

The questions to be asked on this chapter are numerous. First, if Hashem wanted to punish the Jewish people, why did He need to involve David both in a specific sin (counting the population) and in choosing the punishment? Why couldn’t Hashem simply mete out whatever consequences He determined that the nation deserved?

Second, why doesn’t the text tell us what the sin was that Hashem meant to rectify here?

Third, why does David wait so long to pray to Hashem to put a stop to the plague? Shouldn’t he have immediately realized that innocent people would be suffering for his mistake, and protested to the Prophet Gad before the plague began?

Finally, how does the construction of the altar and offering of sacrifices address whatever problem or transgression precipitated this plague?

This chapter is one of the most perplexing and mysterious in the Book of Shemuel. Generally, I rely upon my own literary analysis, some psychological, philosophical and political knowledge, and a sampling of commentaries from various eras to develop my understanding of a chapter and its relationship to the book as a whole. This chapter, however, was one that I did not have a strong intuition about from the beginning, so I consulted with more sources than usual.

Nevertheless, to be honest, diligent research of the classical and modern commentaries left me unsatisfied. Few of the interpreters have addressed these difficulties at all, and those who have dealt with one or two of the issues have provided either incomplete or otherwise unpersuasive resolutions for them. None managed to connect the content of the chapter to broader themes of the book as a whole in any substantive way. Therefore, with your permission, I would like to propose an interpretation of this chapter that is original, and I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and feedback.

I believe we can find allusions in our text to at least three stories from the Torah that are all relevant to its themes and help clarify its message. The first and most fundamental is the story of the Aqedah, or binding of Isaac. Most obviously, both our story and the Aqedah conclude on Mount Moriah with the construction of an altar, offering of sacrifices, and an angel who “stops” a destructive force (there, Abraham about to kill Isaac; here, the plague about to strike Jerusalem). The plague lasts for three days just like Abraham’s journey to the Aqedah. And both stories relate to “numbers” – here, David seeks to clarify the census numbers, and the story of the Aqedah concludes with Hashem’s blessing to Avraham to increase the number of his descendants like the stars in the sky and the sand along the ocean.

This parallelism offers us an insight into the problem that is responsible for the chapter before us. Avraham was blessed with the miraculous gift of a child and is almost immediately called to sacrifice him to God. The Midrashim explain that Avraham, in his excitement over the birth of Yitschaq, neglected the Almighty. Avraham had a party celebrating the weaning of his son and did not offer a single sacrifice to his Creator. He became too engrossed in his “heir” and thoughts of his legacy being passed to the next generation. He lost sight, at least momentarily, of the fact that everything he possessed really belonged to Hashem and had to be dedicated to His service. He started becoming enamored with his son for his own sake and not the sake of Heaven.

The Aqedah was the ultimate test for Avraham because it required that he completely cast aside his own hopes and aspirations and that he break his attachment to the most precious thing he had ever received – his own son. Avraham’s only attachment was to be to the Almighty; no other person, thing or place could have intrinsic significance in his mind apart from Hashem’s plan. Once Avraham is reminded of this fundamental truth, he is promised countless descendants; having a legacy or an heir will no longer be a distraction for Avraham nor will it distort his perspective on the role he must play in the world.
With this in mind, we can understand the episode with David quite well. Like Avraham,David is a pioneer, chosen “out of nowhere” to found not the movement of Judaism (like Avraham) but the monarchy and nation-state of Israel. The hallmark of David’s approach to life and governance was placing Hashem at the center of his focus, and never losing sight of where he came from or the purpose for which he was selected. In our chapter, we see David slipping. He is counting the people in order to enjoy their number, in order to bask in the power and grandeur of his kingdom, for its own sake. They “belong” to him and he is taking “harmless” pleasure in that fact.

However, at the same time, this attitude of David is a two-way street; the people also view David as their patron and protector, as a father-figure to whom they are subjects and to whom they are deeply attached. They are proud of their growth and success and attribute it to their fearless and accomplished king. So the “sin of David” and the punishment to be visited upon the nation are two sides of the same coin – they reflect the spiritually unhealthy relationship between David and the people, a mutual attachment that excludes the Almighty.

This explains why Hashem visits the punishment upon the nation THROUGH an error of David – both sides are responsible for the situation that has developed, and this scenario brings to light the underlying problems. David is in fact punished by the plague, which diminished the very numbers that brought him so much pride. The people likewise suffer for their own overestimation of the significance of their population growth and the greatness of their monarch.

David’s immediate recognition of his mistake, while praiseworthy, is not a complete recovery from this spiritual fog. His choice of punishment is, in and of itself, indicating that some vestiges of the original error still remain. He still sees the people as belonging to him and extensions of his power and therefore considers it appropriate that they suffer for his mistake. It is only when he cries out to Hashem that he and his family should suffer and NOT the citizens of Israel that we see a complete breakthrough being made.

David now recognizes that it is not about him, his kingdom or his legacy. It is about the Jewish people and their mission in the world. He is not supposed to focus on cultivating the loyalty or devotion of the nation towards him, nor is he to take pleasure in his “possession” of them; rather, he is merely a steward appointed by Hashem to lead the nation of Israel toward a deeper relationship with the Almighty.

Avraham had to reframe his relationship with Yitschaq and clarify his own sense of identity through the Aqedah. He went from seeing himself as a parent taking personal pride in his child and living vicariously through his offspring to seeing himself as a servant of Hashem who had the sacred obligation to educate his child for the sake of Heaven. Similarly, David had to reframe his identity through this experience. He went from from viewing himself as the proud ruler of a vast empire that reflected his greatness to viewing himself as a devoted servant of the Almighty with the holy responsibility of shepherding His people.

Offering to suffer instead of his subjects and then purchasing the site of the altar and offering sacrifices as a “substitute” for the suffering of the people is where we see David behaving in a truly Abrahamic fashion. Avraham was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his own son, and eventually offered a ram in his stead. Simply being relieved and happy that the plague had stopped or that the sacrifice of Isaac had been canceled would be another instance of focus on the self – joy in being excused from a difficult responsibility or having a painful burden alleviated. The translation of that energy into worshiping God here is critical because it means that the lesson has been learned – both Avraham and David, in exactly the same geographical spot, were declaring “my task is to serve the Almighty and not get caught up in the pursuit of my own egotistical glory.”

Indeed, David’s designation of this place as a sacred space and ultimately the location of the Holy Temple is a fulfillment of Avraham’s prophetic statement at the conclusion of the Aqedah that this mountain would be a place where people would appear before and experience the Divine presence. The insistence on paying full price for the granary is likewise reminiscent of Avraham’s insistence that he pay in full for the acquisition of Mearat HaMachpelah, the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. David is clearly being compared to Avraham throughout the narrative.

Another section in the Torah that has echoes in this chapter is one that we are about to read this Shabbat – Parashat Sheqalim, the beginning of Parashat Ki Tissa. There we are told that when a census of the Jewish people is conducted, it should be by collecting half-sheqel contributions to the sanctuary. A head count of the population invites “negef”, or plague, while the donations provide an atonement to counteract these negative effects. In our story, we observe a “negef” that strikes the nation because of an improperly executed census. Moreover, it is David’s payment of sheqalim, silver coins, to purchase the granary and sacrifices on behalf of the nation that finally brings them relief from the crisis.

Counting the Jewish people as a point of pride or because it builds up their sense of strength in numbers is misguided. In fact, it is can become a source of arrogance, misplaced confidence, irresponsibility and loss of the Divine Presence. The true strength of the Jewish people is only found in and through their dedication to the Creator. What we “measure” is not human capital, military might or economic prosperity but the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to establish a great, populous and holy nation that is devoted to sanctifying His name in the world.

We demonstrate this concept by only counting the Jewish people through their act of participation in the sacred work of consecrating and maintaining the Sanctuary, rising above any preoccupation with physical strength per se and therefore avoiding any calamitous consequences. Clearly, in this respect, David’s actions in this chapter mirror the theme expressed in Parashat Ki Tissa.

One more very instructive thematic and textual parallel to our chapter can be found in Parashat Qorah. After Qorah’s rebellion is put down in a magnificent and dramatic manner – the Earth opens up to swallow the dissenters and the imposters vying for the position of Kohen Gadol are incinerated – the nation complains about the injustice that has been visited on the people of Hashem. This prompts the Almighty to punish them with a plague. Moshe instructs Aharon to bring the Qetoret, or incense, among the people, and to offer it there as an atonement to halt the destruction. This strategy is effective, and the words “va-teatsar ha-magefah” are used there – precisely the words used here, in our story.

One of the lessons of that episode in the Torah is that what defines us as the “nation of Hashem” is not some intrinsic entitlement we have to Divine favor; only when we live in accordance with Hashem’s wisdom and commandments can we claim that title. The people were stricken with a plague because they forgot that the special status conferred upon them was a conditional one – it was granted only as long as they were true to Hashem and His laws. And disputing the authority of His chosen representatives, the leaders He has selected to guide the Jewish people, is clearly a betrayal of Hashem Himself. When Moshe and Aharon intervene and, through their service of Hashem, are able to put a stop to the plague, it underscores not only their dedication to the welfare of the people but their special Divinely appointed status as shepherds of His nation.

One of the significant themes of our story is that David, like Aharon, “enters the breach” to defend and protect his people through supplicating to Hashem and then offering sacrifices to Him. The fact that his entreaties are accepted and the plague ceases is another Divine validation of the “chosen” status of David as monarch of Israel. Moreover, just as the selection of the kohanim was controversial and may have been disputed as a “partisan” choice because Aharon was the brother of Moshe, so too might the selection of Yerushalayim as the home of the Divine Presence be resisted. The description of its consecration by prophetic mandate, and the effectiveness of the worship there in saving the Jews from a crisis, is sufficient evidence to naysayers that the choice of the Temple Mount was not politically motivated – it was decreed from Heaven.
In summary, this chapter represents the final hurdle to be overcome in preparing the Jewish people to construct a permanent home for the Divine Presence and to remain consistently focused on their calling as a light unto the nations. When the people are the beneficiaries of untold prosperity, population growth, military victory and political stability, will they still remain connected to their spiritual mission? Or, as the Torah predicts, will they become self-absorbed, get caught up in their own fantasies, and lose sight of their role in God’s plan, undermining the whole idea of a Holy Temple altogether?

David’s error, the resulting plague and the correction through designating and offering sacrifices at the future sanctuary all address this problem. The solution is to refocus, as Avraham did, on the true purpose for which we have been chosen, to recall the real value of our population growth and success as tools to serve the Creator, and acknowledge that our salvation and security will always be contingent on our fulfillment of His will. At the end of David’s career, he had “made it” – the question was, how would he sustain it? This chapter recounts the experience that helped David himself remain spiritually grounded and the study of which would provide guidance to his successors in future generations as well.

The Book of Shemuel started by describing the Jewish people without any central government and suffering from the oppression of an absolutely corrupt religious establishment in Shilo, lorded over by the sons of Eli. Shemuel the Prophet arose to heal the spiritual ills of the nation and return them to the path of Torah, and was charged with the responsibility of anointing the king who would bring security and stability to the country so that service of Hashem would have a solid base upon which to stand.

The first monarch, Shaul, was a very righteous and admirable man, and the Rabbis emphasize that we should not allow his flaws (magnified for us in the stories with David) to overshadow the outstanding qualities that earned him the kingdom to begin with. Nevertheless, his insufficient devotion to Hashem – manifest in his excessive concern with the opinions and approval of others – left him unable to defer to Torah guidance, defeat Amaleq or take any action to establish a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant. His rule was not a vehicle of Divine service to the extent it was intended to be.

David, by contrast, lives in the presence of Hashem continually. He is totally disinterested in fame, fortune and popularity and singularly preoccupied with seeking and fulfilling the will of his Creator. Therefore, not only does he wage decisive and successful battles against the enemies of Israel, he forms a highly functional government and paves the way for the Holy Temple to be constructed (he would have done so himself, but was forbidden from it!)

The final chapter of the Book of Shemuel is a beautiful “reversal” of its opening chapter – we now have a selfless and devoted leader (unlike the sons of Eli), presiding over a well-ordered and systematically governed society (unlike Shaul), and dedicating himself and his nation to the service of Hashem (unlike either of them). The temporary, corrupt sanctuary and priests of the first chapter of Sefer Shemuel have disappeared, a new and improved generation bustling with educated citizens and guided by sincere leaders has emerged, and the permanent sanctuary – the symbolic “culmination” of the settlement of the Jews in the Holy Land, begun in the Book of Yehoshua – is now ready to be constructed.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 23

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 23

This chapter begins with another brief poem that is introduced as the “last words” of David, meaning the last words he pronounced under divine inspiration for posterity. This is the only time in the book of Shemuel that we find David referred to by his famous moniker the “sweet singer of Israel”. David reflects upon his selection by Hashem for kingship and his profound sense of moral obligation to rule justly. He compares the emergence of his monarchy to sunlight that shines upon the vegetation of earth on a cloudless morning following the rain. David contrasts his radiantly blossoming regime which is sure to flourish in the future with the kingdoms of the wicked that are like thorns that must be torn away with iron implements or burned in their place.

The chapter proceeds to describe for us the inner circle of David’s officers and commanders. Although interpretation of the text is somewhat challenging, it appears that they are divided into three categories: the first tier, comprised of three elite officers, the second tier, also comprised of three officers, and then thirty officers who were counted among the best of David’s men but were not equal in skill or military prowess to the first six.

When one more officer is included (either Yoav ben Tzeruya or Benayahu ben Yehoyada), we arrive at a final number of thirty-seven. There are other ways of understanding the count and the hierarchy being delineated but this appears to be the simplest approach. It is noteworthy that both Uriah the Hittite, victim of David’s most heinous crime, and the son of Ahitophel, David’s renegade adviser, are numbered among his best and brightest troops.

In addition to describing the impressive deeds of several of these heroes, the text recounts an incident during David’s period of hiding with his men in the Cave of Adullam. Although the Pelishtim occupied Bet Lehem at the time, David expressed a strong desire to drink of the cool waters of the well there; three of his officers then risked their lives, snuck into the Pelishti camp and returned with the water that he had mentioned. David, not wanting to encourage soldiers to risk their lives for such insignificant reasons, spills out the water, refusing to validate their manifestly courageous but nonetheless irresponsible act.

The reader wonders what objective the text serves in providing us with vivid details of the exploits of David’s soldiers, particularly when we have already finished the essential narrative of David’s life and career. The Sages of the Talmud propose metaphoric interpretations of several of the battles described here, seemingly in order to emphasize that David’s men were not mere brutes or ninjas who claimed many casualties; they were Torah scholars and spiritual personalities as well as accomplished warriors.

For instance, the “water” drawn for David from Bet Lehem is interpreted as Torah knowledge that David wanted to obtain from the Sanhedrin or High Court of the Rabbis, which was then located in Bet Lehem. Similarly, Benayahu ben Yehoyada’s slaying of a lion in a pit on a snowy day is read as a metaphor for his conquering a very difficult halakhic text under particularly trying circumstances.

It is easy to dismiss this approach as unfaithful to the plain meaning of the text. However, I would suggest that the Rabbis’ method is well-grounded in the principles we learned from the book of Shofetim, where we saw that political and military triumph are inseparable from religious redemption and salvation. Consider Gideon, who had to liberate himself from idolatry in order to lead the nation, and who was only allowed to employ soldiers who had kept themselves free from it as well. Alternatively, recall Devorah, who did not command Baraq to lead the Jews into battle until they had returned to Torah life first.

Truthfully, however, we need not look as far as the Book of Shofetim – at the very beginning of Sefer Shemuel, we saw that the political downfall of the Jews was part and parcel of its spiritual decline under the corrupt leadership of the sons of Eli. The resurgence of the strength and autonomy of the Jewish people and their eventual establishment of a monarchy occurred only because the groundwork was first laid by Shemuel, who reeducated the nation and placed them back on the path of Torah.

Thus we see that the suggestion that primitive muscle-men would be the agents of the Divine Plan is anathema to the Tanakh, and the Rabbis, based upon this premise, read the stories here as parables of spiritual as well as military victory. They did this not because they wanted to recast the heroes of the era of David in their own image as rabbinical scholars of the Talmudic period, but because they understood the underlying themes of Tanakh and its message. They knew that the notion of celebrating or attaching intrinsic value to military conquest or political power outside of the context of Torah or service of Hashem would be contradictory to the spirit of our tradition.

The Rabbis wisely rejected the idea that an “action hero” would be put on a pedestal in Judaism simply by virtue of his physical feats on the battlefield. What we read about here is not about men fighting for power but about men fighting to preserve the traditions of Torah and to continue the sacred mission of sanctifying Hashem’s name in the world.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 22

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 22
This chapter contains the “Song of David”, a lengthy poem whereby David expresses his gratitude to Hashem for the salvation and success he has experienced throughout his life. This chapter is remarkable in that it is the only one repeated in the Bible – it appears again, with a few slight stylistic modifications, in the Book of Tehillim.

As we have noted in the past, it is difficult to “summarize” poetry, since much of its power derives not from the content but from the beautiful and emotionally moving form through which that content is communicated. It is critical to read every word in order to appreciate the enduring richness of these sections. Nevertheless, we can attempt to identify a couple of the themes and ideas in the poem as well as make an observation or two about its format and context.

The Book of Shemuel begins and ends with a song. The prayer of Hanna on the occasion of the birth of the prophet Shemuel is the conclusion of the very first story of the book, and the final verse is a prayer that Hashem should uplift and strengthen His anointed king. Hanna realized that the spiritual and political decline in Israel was due to the lack of strong, centralized religious and governmental leadership, and turned to Hashem to provide this much-needed structure. She hoped this change would come about through her son Shemuel, which indeed it did – he anointed the first and second monarchs of Israel, with David being the final choice of the Almighty for the position.

In our chapter, we hear the words of the long hoped-for king that Hanna dreamed of but never actually had the opportunity to see. David offers his reflections on the role Divine providence has played in his ascendancy to power, successful military campaigns and establishment as ruler of the Jewish nation. Like Hanna, he dwells on Hashem as the transcendent, unknowable and all-powerful Creator who nonetheless “lowers Himself” and involves Himself in the affairs of human beings.

The clear connection between the two songs can be found in the final verse of David’s song “Great source of salvation is He to His king, and He bestows kindness upon his anointed one,” which reminds us of Hanna’s last verse “He will give strength to His king and uplift his anointed one.” This parallelism underscores the relationship between the two songs that form a kind of “frame” around the book of Shemuel as a whole. The two poems are like bookends on a shelf or like two slices of bread between which all of the “meat” of the narratives is sandwiched.

We can take the liberty of dividing David’s tribute into two sections. The first half focuses on Hashem’s protection and salvation of David from the attacks of his enemies, including Shaul. David considers his survival of these ordeals and challenges to be a direct consequence of his faithfulness to Hashem and the commandments of the Torah. Here David portrays himself more passively, as the beneficiary of Hashem’s kindness in times of trouble.

The second half of the song builds upon the first, although the focus shifts from “defense” – Hashem’s guarding of David from his opponents – to offense, David’s remarkable success on the battlefield and in consolidating his kingdom. Here, David describes himself as an active agent of change who is assisted by Divine intervention in his endeavors.

More than simply helping David “to make it through” various crises, Hashem has empowered and supported David’s efforts to secure and expand the borders of Israel, vanquish and subjugate his enemies, and usher in an era of stability and strength, both spiritually and politically, for the Jewish people as a whole. Hashem is not only David’s Savior and Deliverer; He is also the One Who has blessed David with the capacity to accomplish heroic and decisive victories on the battlefield and to advance his kingdom beyond what anyone could ever have imagined.

Proof that there are two halves to the song can be found towards the end. One of the stylistic flairs of the Tanakh is to use “chiastic” structures; this means speaking about topic A, moving to topic B, then again topic B, and ending with topic A. Topic A here would be the protection and salvation Hashem has provided David, and Topic B would be the political and military victories and other successful endeavors of David.

The song begins with Topic A and transitions to Topic B. Then finally, in verses 48-50 we see the signature form: David praises Hashem for avenging him of his enemies and subduing them (Topic B) and then concludes with “You extract me from my enemies clutches and lift me above those who rise against me, You save me from violent men,” which is a reversion to Topic A.

David closes with the idea that, because of all of the evidence of Divine providence in his life and career, he declares his gratitude to Hashem before all of the nations of the world.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 21

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 21

The last four chapters of Shemuel Bet are somewhat disjointed, and the chronology of the events depicted therein is not always clear. Many commentaries suggest that some of these events happened earlier in David’s career but, since they are not connected to the main storyline of the book their treatment is saved for the end.

There is a famine in Israel for three consecutive years and David seeks Hashem for an explanation of why it has befallen them. Hashem informs David that the famine is a punishment incurred by Shaul because he massacred the Givonim, decimating their population. The Givonim were a group of Canaanites who joined the Jews in the times of Yehoshua. They pretended not to be inhabitants of the land (who would have to be driven out or destroyed) and convinced Yehoshua to allow them to co-exist with the Jews in Israel.

Apparently, in an incident not described explicitly anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, Shaul attacked and killed many Givonim on some kind of crusade to purify the Jewish people of foreign influences. Although it may have been well-intentioned, it was in direct violation of the solemn oath undertaken by the Jewish people not to harm the Givonim.

The Midrashim attempt to mitigate Shaul’s sin somewhat, claiming that the “destruction” wreaked upon the Givonim was a result of Shaul’s siege on the priestly city of Nov. Since the Givonim were tasked with supplying water and wood to Nov, its destruction put them out of work and therefore “destroyed them”. Alternatively, the Givonim may have been unintentional victims of the strike against Nov.

In either case, these Midrashim do an admirable job of casting Shaul in a positive light, but they do not fit with the literal meaning of the text. Understood simply, the text states that Shaul was inspired by religious fervor and massacred the inhabitants of Givon at some point in his career.

It should not strike us as unusual that this conflict with the Givonim is not mentioned elsewhere in Tanakh. Several examples of Biblical allusions to otherwise unknown historical events can be cited. For instance, when Shaul visits the necromancer at Ein Dor, the text informs us that Shaul had previously initiated a campaign to rid the land of all practitioners of the occult. Had Shaul not himself succumbed to his desire for a consultation with a medium, we would not have any knowledge of the efforts he made earlier in his career to put a stop to such activities. Here, too, we would not know that Shaul had massacred the Givonim if not for the consequences manifest in the days of David.

David understands that only through securing the forgiveness of the Givonim will the Divine wrath be removed from the Jewish people. He approaches the people of Givon and asks them what he can do to correct the wrongs perpetrated by the house of Shaul. They demand seven of the male descendants of Shaul be handed over to them to be hung in retribution for the murders that he committed. David complies with their request, although he spares the life of Mefivoshet in deference to the oath he made to Yonatan to protect his children and preserve his legacy.

The Givonim hang the descendants of Shaul around the beginning the of the barley harvest, in the spring, and leave their corpses exposed during the rainy season. The mother of two of the victims, Ritzpah bat Aya, mourns and stands guard over them in the field, protecting their bodies from the elements as well as from wild beasts. When David hears about this, he arranges for the bones of Shaul and Yonatan to be retrieved from Yavesh Gilead and for the remains of those killed by the Givonim to be collected and interred in their ancestral burial plot. After all of this, the famine ends.

The chapter concludes with a description of several heroic battles waged by the men of David against various Pelishti giants. These accounts give us a sense of the mightiness and skill of David’s entourage of fighters. We are also told of a point in time where David no longer had the physical energy to contend on the battlefield and was nearly killed; after this, his soldiers insisted that he no longer join them in combat.

The contrast emphasized here between Shaul and David is noteworthy. Shaul has a reputation for failing to honor his word, even when it is bolstered with an invocation of the name of Hashem. He oftentimes adhered to his own sense of the proper course of action, even when it conflicted with the Divine will, and especially when it conformed to popular sentiment. Shaul’s killing the Givonim transgressed an oath made in the name of Hashem but he rationalized this in view of his “holy purpose” in battling what he believed to be their inappropriate influence on Israel.

David, by contrast, violates his own sense of moral propriety in this chapter in order to honor an oath taken in the name of Hashem and to fulfill His will. David puts Hashem and His reputation ahead of his own political or religious sensibilities and does not allow his subjective feelings, even when they are theologically justifiable, to bias him.

The text comments that the Givonim were not originally Jewish, something that students of the Tanakh already know. The Rabbis tell us that the purpose of mentioning this fact here is to explain why the Givonim acted in such a cruel and heartless fashion, demanding bloody revenge from the house of Shaul for what had been done to them. Jews, the Sages tell us, have compassion and mercy instilled in them and would never have sought to punish the family of Shaul in such a manner.

Of course, this leads us to the further question of what justified killing seven descendants of Shaul for a crime they did not commit. Not only does David fulfill what seems like an outlandish and unjust request from the Givonim, Hashem discontinues the famine shortly after, indicating that these actions were considered proper and were therefore sufficient to quelch the Divine wrath. One possibility, suggested by some of the commentaries, is that the members of the house of Shaul who were punished were actually complicit, on some level, in the deeds of Shaul – they either participated in the massacre, endorsed it or supported it. This makes the story much more reasonable and comprehensible to us.

However, I would like to suggest an alternative possibility. The reason the text emphasizes the non-Jewish background of the Givonim is not in order to explain their demand but in order to explain David’s acquiescence to their demand. Precisely because they were of non-Jewish origin, the Jewish people had to be extremely cautious and go to enormous lengths to avoid any desecration of the name of Hashem. Therefore, despite the fact that the request of the Givonim was essentially unjust and reflected poorly upon them, David felt morally obligated to honor it in order to restore the sanctity of Hashem’s name that had been sullied by the behavior of Shaul toward them.

When dealing with other nations to whom we must serve as mentors and examples of Divine wisdom and justice, the rules of engagement are sometimes more radical than when we are dealing “in house” with fellow Jews. Other nations are not well-schooled in the nuances of law and principle and would not be able to grasp a learned discourse on the legitimacy of punishing the children for the sins of the father. The imperative to demonstrate that justice is the legitimate claim of all of God’s creatures and that sacred oaths in the name of the Almighty are inviolable forced David to take an action that would normally (in a Jewish framework) be unjust. Tragically, this was the only way he could convey to the Givonim that the violation of the oath was addressed and that their grievance received a serious response.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 20

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 20

Sheva ben Bikhri, a disreputable member of the tribe of Binyamin, takes advantage of the intertribal tensions that followed David’s resumption of power and declares another rebellion against the crown, taking all of the tribes except Yehuda over to his side. Parenthetically, the text mentions that the ten concubines of David who had relations with Avshalom are supported by David for the rest of their lives, but are subject to a kind of house arrest, not living with the king nor permitted to marry anyone else.

David instructs his newly appointed general, Amasa, to gather troops from the tribe of Yehuda, report back to him in three days and then attack Sheva ben Bikhri and his forces. However, the deadline arrives and Amasa has defaulted on his mission. Therefore, David commands Avishai to organize a contingent of soldiers and put down the rebellion before it is too late – the more time passes, the stronger and more emboldened the rebels will become.

Avishai arrives with his troops in the territory of Binyamin and is joined there by Yoav, who has apparently gotten over the insult of being replaced and wishes to lend his support to the war effort. They encounter Amasa, David’s general, in Givon. Yoav approaches Amasa with warm wishes and leans in to kiss him; meanwhile, Yoav draws his sword and slays the naïve Amasa with a single strike.

One of the men present declares that whoever is with David should follow Yoav into battle; however, at first, the soldiers gathered around are paralyzed by the sight of Amasa’s bloody corpse on the side of the road. The man who is attempting to inspire everyone to proceed moves Amasa’s body away from the thoroughfare and throws a blanket over it. Now under the direction of Yoav, those committed to the cause of defending David’s kingdom depart to lay siege to the stronghold of Sheva Ben Bikhri.

Sheva ben Bikhri has taken refuge in Avel of Bet Maakha, a fortified city in the territory of Binyamin. On Yoav’s orders, the men of Yehuda lay siege to the city – building a ramp and battering, to gain entry either through or over the wall. A wise woman calls to Yoav and asks him why his army seeks to destroy the heritage of Hashem, a peaceful Jewish community. Yoav explains that they bear no ill will toward the people of the city, but that Sheva ben Bikhri has declared a rebellion against the king and must be stopped.

The woman confers with the inhabitants of the city and Sheva Ben Bikhri’s head is thrown over the wall to quell the fighting. Yoav blows the shofar and the war is concluded. The chapter ends with a list of the members of the latest incarnation of David’s royal cabinet, most notably featuring Yoav reinstated as his general.

Yoav’s killing of Amasa can be added to the list of unauthorized assassinations that he carries out. In the beginning of Sefer Melakhim, David condemns Yoav for having murdered Amasa, perhaps interpreting it as motivated by jealousy over the selection of Amasa to replace him. However, in reality, the appointment of Amasa was itself a questionable move by David. Amasa had never demonstrated any military expertise on the battlefield; the one war he led, Avshalom’s rebellion, was a total failure. And when assigned the task of organizing forces to put down the uprising of Sheva Ben Bikhri, he again fails to fulfill his mission, placing King David and his regime in serious danger.

Yoav apparently viewed Amasa’s negligence here as deliberate betrayal and assumed that Amasa’s sympathies were with the rebel movement and not with David. Yoav’s suspicions were essentially confirmed by one simple fact: Amasa was supposed to be recruiting troops from the tribe of Yehuda to defend David, and is instead found in Givon, the very heart of the tribe of Binyamin, the home territory of Sheva ben Bikhri. In other words, Yoav has caught Amasa red handed in enemy territory, ostensibly having joined or planning to join the rebellion against his own king. Therefore, Yoav had every reason to feel justified in his decision to execute Amasa for treason, and we cannot assume that he was influenced by personal enmity or resentment.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 19

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 19

David’s response to the news of Avshalom’s death is heart-wrenching. He is totally consumed by his profound sense of loss. His supporters become aware of the fact that he is in mourning, and the people are uncomfortable approaching him. Yoav confronts David and rebukes him harshly for his reaction. Yoav reminds David that, had they not been victorious on the battlefield, all of them – including David’s entire family – would have been killed.

By reacting to the outcome of the war as if it were a tragedy, David is implying that he would rather that his friends, relatives and associates be dead than his rebellious son. This, Yoav argues, will lead to David’s abandonment even by those who are closest to him. David agrees with Yoav’s assessment, composes himself and seats himself at the gate to receive the people.

The tribes of Israel reflect upon the aftermath of the conflict and decide that the time has come to officially restore David to his position of leadership. However, David himself reaches out to the elders of his own tribe of Yehuda and subtly criticizes them for not being the first to offer to escort him back to the palace. He removes Yoav as general of his army and replaces him with Amasa, Avshalom’s general, who also hailed from the tribe of Yehuda. In both cases, David himself makes reference to the natural familial affiliation he has with these parties.

On his way back to Jerusalem, David is first intercepted by Shimi ben Gera, who has come to apologize for his unseemly conduct in cursing and throwing stones at David and to beg for forgiveness. Shimi has arrived in the company of one thousand men of the tribe of Binyamin, including Tziva, the servant of Mefivoshet, and his fifteen sons and twenty servants. Avishai ben Tzeruyah proposes that Shimi be executed for having disgraced the anointed king; David, however, orders him to desist and promises Shimi that he will not be killed.

Mefivoshet is the next to welcome David back to Jerusalem. He has evidently been in a state of mourning, is unshaven and disheveled. David asks Mefivoshet why he chose not to accompany him into exile. Mefivoshet explains that he indeed wished to come but that his servant, Tziva, fooled him. Rather than preparing a donkey for Mefivoshet to ride upon, Tziva absconded with the donkey and provisions himself and slandered his master to the king.

Mefivoshet emphasizes that he owes an eternal debt of gratitude to David for having spared him and his household and that he will willingly accept whatever judgment David decrees. David responds to Mefivoshet’s lengthy speech somewhat impatiently, chiding him for elaborating so much, and declares that the estate of Shaul should be divided evenly between Mefivoshet and Tziva. Mefivoshet declines the offer and expresses his wish that all of the property remain with Tziva, since the knowledge that David has been restored to the monarchy is sufficient for him and he has no need for material goods.

David next addresses Barzilai HaGiladi and encourages him to come and live in Jerusalem. Barzilai responds that he is too old and his senses are too dulled to benefit from “retirement” in Yerushalayim – his taste buds have lost their capacity to enjoy food and his ears can no longer enjoy music. Barzilai prefers to finish his life in his own city, but sends his son, Kimham, to live with David and receive whatever rewards David wishes to bestow upon Barzilai in his stead.

The chapter concludes with a description of tensions that have erupted between the tribe of Yehuda and the rest of the tribes of Israel. The majority are upset that the tribe of Yehuda has played such a significant role in accompanying the king back to the palace, especially in view of the fact that they were the last to take any initiative on this project.

The tribe of Yehuda points out that it has never been the beneficiary of any special favors or kindnesses from David as a result of his tribal affiliation with them; rather, they got involved out of a sense of obligation to their relative, David. The other tribes respond that, as the vast majority of the nation, they have ten shares in King David and should have been consulted on and included in his “welcome home” party. We are told that the words of the tribe of Yehuda were stronger – either in tone or in persuasiveness – than those of the other tribes.

David displays an unusual amount of partisanship in this chapter by favoring his own tribe of Yehuda. Until now, he has been quite principled in his impartiality. One wonders whether the change we observe here is because of a general lack of trust and sense of wariness that he has now developed – the fact that the nation supported Avshalom’s rebellion made David feel that he could only rely upon “his own”.

Alternatively, from the fact that Avshalom based his camp in Hevron, a bastion of Yehuda, David may have intuited that he failed to ingratiate himself enough to his own base, and he attempted to correct that imbalance. It is noteworthy that in their exchange with the other tribes, the representatives of Yehuda make mention of the fact that they have received no benefits or favoritism from David during his rule.This can be interpreted as a praise of David’s objectivity and fairness or as a veiled complaint that they were never granted the privileges to which they felt they were entitled. Whatever the case may be, we will see that tensions among the tribes spell more trouble for David in the near future.

David’s deposing of Yoav, like his intense mourning for Avshalom, reveals to us a mentality that is now somewhat typical of the “new David” who is more preoccupied with his own fate and personal needs than those of the nation as a whole. Yoav was not fired for killing Avner, for example, even though it was treacherous and unwarranted; yet here, when he killed Avshalom because of his status as a rebel against the crown, he is dismissed from his position.

David may have justified his distinction between the two cases by citing the fact that here, Yoav acted in defiance of a direct order, whereas David never explicitly warned Yoav not to harm Avner. However, our impression that David is acting emotionally rather than rationally is reinforced by his choice to appoint the treasonous and failed general of Avshalom, Amasa, in place of the loyal and accomplished Yoav, on the pretext of the fact that Amasa is a member of his family (actually, Yoav was too!).

Again, David may have defended his decision based upon a desire to reunify and consolidate the kingdom, erasing the divisions that had been created by the rebellion and demonstrating that he had no ill will against those who allied themselves with Avshalom. In retrospect, however, it will become clear that this view was somewhat naïve.

David’s treatment of Mefivoshet is roundly criticized by the Sages, who say that as punishment for David’s order to split the estate between Tziva and Mefivoshet, his kingdom would one day be split as well. On the surface, David’s harshness toward the lame and helpless Mefivoshet is puzzling. However, taken in the context of his general “swing” of preference in favor of his own tribe and family, we can interpret his behavior as a reflection of some feelings of hostility and mistrust toward the house of Shaul, represented by Mefivoshet.

David’s earlier graciousness to Mefivoshet was part of his effort to unite the kingdom and eliminate or mitigate divisions that existed between various tribes or factions within the nation. However, his new program, at least temporarily, seems to be a reversion to the “old fashioned” way of doing things, and he has no patience or sympathy for Mefivoshet. This exacerbation of the divisions between the tribes (particularly, the singling out of the tribe of Yehuda for special treatment) and the sense of “us against them” may have laid the groundwork, as the Sages suggest, for the ultimate bifurcation of the nation into the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel.

It has also been suggested that David was prejudiced against Mefivoshet for historical reasons; Yonatan, Mefivoshet’s father, also made the fateful and tragic decision not to follow David in exile but to remain at the palace by his father Shaul’s side. He did this, neglecting to join David and part ways with Shaul, despite professing a belief that David was destined to be king and a desire to rule as a partner with him. It is possible that David interpreted Mefivoshet’s actions as a replay of this “betrayal” by Yonatan that he could never fully forgive.

Barzilai HaGiladi is also worthy of a few comments. The Sages remark that he was steeped in instinctual pleasures, and this is why his senses were dull. Although he was clearly a kind, generous and loyal friend to David, the Rabbis disparage his moral character. What is their basis for this assessment? I would suggest that the reasons he offers for declining to join David in Jerusalem reveal his value system. If he is not able to partake of fine food and wine and listen to beautiful music, he sees no benefit in residing in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

In other words, his definition of what is worthwhile or meaningful in life is totally materialistic and sensual. A deeper, more spiritual person would yearn to be in Yerushalayim for the opportunities to learn Torah, to serve Hashem, to be inspired. Such an individual would not be focused on the quality of the cuisine or of the musical offerings available to him in the palace.

By contrast, Barzilai, who turns down the chance to live in Jerusalem because his age prevents him from enjoying the “finer things in life”, demonstrates clearly the values and priorities that guide him. He shows us what he thinks makes life worth living – not the inspiration of the soul but the pleasures of the body.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 18

(The Reading Will Be Posted Tomorrow)

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 18

David is now joined by tens of thousands of supporters and prepares for the battle with Avshalom. The group is divided into three camps under the leadership of Yoav, Avishai and Ittai, respectively. David expresses a desire to join the troops himself; however, the officers object, concerned that Avshalom’s forces will be disinterested in combat and simply target David if he is present. David agrees to stay behind, but he publicly orders his officers to deal gently with Avshalom.

David’s soldiers quickly gain the upper hand in the conflict, slaying twenty thousand men. At one point, Avshalom is riding on his mule and his head is caught in a tree above; the mule continues walking, leaving Avshalom hanging from a branch in midair. One of the troops reports this to Yoav, who rebukes the soldier for neglecting to kill Avshalom when he found him; the soldier replies that he did not feel that he could contravene the direct orders of the king not to harm his son.

Yoav drives three darts through the heart of Avshalom and then instructs ten of his weapon-bearers to execute him. Yoav then blows the shofar, signaling that the war has come to an end. Avshalom’s body is dumped in a pit and covered with a pile of stones. The text emphasizes that he had no heir to continue the struggle after him.

Ahimaatz, son of Tzadoq the Kohen, wants to run and inform David that the war is over. Yoav explains that since the king’s son has died, these are not good tidings and he should allow someone else to convey them. Yoav sends a Kushite to bring the news to David, and the Kushite leaves to fulfill his mission. Ahimaatz persists and again asks for permission to run ahead and share the latest developments with David, and Yoav begrudgingly allows him to do so, reiterating that this will be a thankless job under the circumstances. Despite the fact that Ahimaatz left later than the Kushite, he is able to surpass the Kushite and reach David first because he takes a shortcut.

Meanwhile, David is waiting patiently for an update from the battlefield. The watchman observes first one, then two men running toward the gate, evidently coming to provide some information to the king. When David is told that the first to arrive will be Ahimaatz, he assumes that this indicates that the news will be positive. Ahimaatz reassures David that all is well and bows low to the ground. When David asks about the welfare of Avshalom, he claims ignorance of the details. David is then greeted by the Kushite, who confirms the message delivered by Ahimaatz. When he is asked about the status of Avshalom, however, he freely acknowledges his death, declaring that “all the enemies of the king should be like that young man.”

One noteworthy element of this chapter is the sudden “swelling” of David’s camp. How did his entourage grow from a few hundred supporters to tens of thousands of troops? One possibility is that, as Ahitophel predicted, the rebellion’s loss of its initial momentum caused a sizable number of people to become skeptical, defect from Avshalom’s regime and join David. Another possibility is that the vulgar behavior of Avshalom in publicly cohabiting with his father’s wives was not well received and caused some of his allies to rethink their allegiances.

The Sages explain that there is an element of “poetic justice” in Avshalom’s death; he grew his hair very long to elevate himself and it was ultimately the cause of his downfall. The Rabbis state that Avshalom was actually a permanent Nazirite and this was the reason why he only cut his hair once a year. On the surface, it is difficult to reconcile the image of a devoutly religious Nazir with the manifestly base and aggressive tendencies of Avshalom. Why do the Rabbis cast Avshalom as a Nazir?

We must bear in mind that the status of a Nazir is itself quite controversial in rabbinic tradition. A famous Talmudic story has it that Shimon Hatzadiq, the great Kohen Gadol of the Second Temple period, refused to eat of the sacrifices of Nazirites because, as a rule, they undertook the vow to showcase their piety and not out of genuine religious motives (the story goes on to detail a memorable exception to this rule).

Avshalom, as a clever and crafty manipulator of public opinion, is portrayed as a Nazir – that is, someone who cultivates an outward image of religiosity in order to impress and endear himself to others. Avshalom is envisioned as a Nazir precisely because, generally speaking, a Nazir is a person who wants to be seen as very devout, even when this is far from the case. We can well imagine Avshalom, like many politicians today, taking up the mantle of religious fervor and observance in order to win the admiration and trust of his would-be supporters.

In that way, unlike Shimshon and Shemuel who preceded him, Avshalom’s Nazirite status undermined true Torah principles rather than helping to establish and promote them. Shimshon and Shemuel were Nazirites from birth because this allowed them to focus less on themselves and more on the service of Hashem and the needs of the nation of Israel. Avshalom, by contrast, used the Nazirite vow as a ploy to draw more attention to himself.

The complications negotiated by Yoav and Ahimaatz with respect to informing David of the outcome of the battle are symptomatic of a deeper problem – David’s ambivalence about the war as a whole. On a national level, his responsibility and objective must be to defend his crown and protect his subjects. However, at the same time, his attachment to Avshalom renders this communal victory a personal loss. This theme will be explored in more detail in upcoming chapters.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 17

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 17

Avshalom is poised to consolidate his political gains and advance his agenda, so he once again seeks counsel from Ahitophel. Ahitophel recommends that Avshalom authorize him to personally gather 12,000 men and lead an immediate, nighttime attack while David and his men are still demoralized and weary. There will be no need to defeat all of David’s soldiers; merely assassinating David will be sufficient. Ahitophel will then take whatever steps are necessary to transition the population to acceptance of their new king.

Avshalom and the elders are pleased with the advice of Ahitophel; however, Avshalom wants to consult with Hushai before making a final decision. He summons Hushai and shares Ahitophel’s plan with him. Hushai declares that Ahitophel’s suggestion is misguided and offers an alternative. Hushai reminds Avshalom that his father is legendary for being a mighty and courageous warrior. David and his men are highly experienced, tough and ferocious fighters who are probably on high alert right now and will repel the kind of attack suggested by Ahitophel.

Hushai instead urges Avshalom to patiently gather a large army from all across the country and insists that Avshalom himself should lead them into battle. Rather than merely targeting David, all of his troops and supporters should be eliminated, and if they take refuge in a city, ropes should be tied around its walls so it can be dragged into the sea.

Avshalom and the men of Israel prefer the advice of Hushai over that of Ahitophel. The text remarks that this was not because of the superiority of Hushai’s plan – in fact, Ahitophel’s was wiser – but because of Hashem’s intent to thwart the evil designs of Ahitophel and to punish Avshalom. Unsure whether this will be Avshalom’s final decision or not, Hushai sends word through the Kohanim, informing him of the two proposals and warning him not to sleep in the camp; he tells David to cross over the Jordan and hide there because of the possibility that Avshalom will stage a sneak attack at night.

The elder Kohanim pass the message on to the younger kohanim, Yonatan and Ahimaatz, who communicate it to David. However, they are almost caught traveling back and forth and they only evade capture because they hide inside the well of a couple in Bahurim that covers for and protects them. When Ahitophel sees that his advice is not being followed, he returns home, sets his affairs in order, and commits suicide.

The chapter concludes by describing the transition of David’s camp to an unlikely location as well as the arrival of several new friends of David, many of them unlikely supporters. David moves to Mahanayim, the former capital of the short-lived kingdom of his rival, Ish-Boshet. Shovi, the son of Nahash, King of Ammon, Barzilai the Gileadite, and Makhir the son of Ammiel – all of whom had reason not to take David’s side in the conflict – come with all sorts of provisions to assist him.

David’s kindness to Nahash’s son, Hanun, had previously been rebuffed in a humiliating manner, igniting an intense war between the two nations. Nevertheless, Nahash’s other son, Shovi, joins David’s camp. Barzilai the Gileadite has ties to the house of Shaul and is probably a member of his family, and Makhir was Mefivoshet’s host and patron before David made other arrangements to take care of him. Despite their previous loyalties to Shaul, they recognize that David is the rightful king and deserves their support.

Moreover, the woman who protects the two Kohanim who serve as spies for David lives in Bahurim, a city closely associated with Shaul. The message here is that David’s efforts to unify the kingdom, to govern in a principled manner and even to conduct international affairs in a compassionate and judicious way have not gone unnoticed. His popularity endures among those who appreciate what he stands for as a person and as a leader.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this chapter is the contrast between the proposals of Hushai and Ahitophel. What is it that made Ahitophel’s advice superior but not attractive enough to win Avshalom’s endorsement? What was it about Hushai’s vision that appealed more to Avshalom and to the men of Israel?

Ahitophel has made a realistic and highly accurate assessment of the facts on the ground. His evaluation of David’s state of demoralization and weakness, and the resultant advantage to Avshalom, is likewise correct. Moreover, the notion of capitalizing on the momentum of the rebellion and assassinating David in a targeted strike would have been the wisest move for Avshalom, since it would have prevented the conflict from evolving into a long, protracted struggle.

However, there was one problem with Ahitophel’s advice – not a tactical or strategic flaw, but a lack of psychological appeal. It is too practical and perfunctory, and it assigns a decisive role to Ahitophel rather than Avshalom. While Ahitophel’s plan would have produced results, there was no glory or honor in his approach for the ego-driven Avshalom. Hushai picks up on this and utilizes it to make his proposal sound much more desirable. Let us consider how Hushai frames his vision differently.

First of all, Hushai is wise enough not to impugn or attack the personality of Ahitophel; instead, acknowledging the brilliance of Ahitophel, he “humbly” suggests that, this one time, Ahitophel has erred. Hushai describes David as a larger-than life Chuck Norris type warrior (a depiction obviously better suited to the early stages of his career than to his recent, more passive behavior), and characterizes his military prowess, courage and determination in glowing terms. He also repeatedly calls David “your father” when addressing Avshalom, rather than “the king”. Hushai then paints a picture of a clash of epic and almost ridiculous proportions in which Avshalom would utterly subdue and destroy the forces of the legendary King David.

Hushai realizes that Avshalom is motivated not only by a desire for practical political and military successes but by his desire for glory and honor in victory. This means that Avshalom WANTS to believe that his enemy is tremendously strong, not weak. And he wants to be sure that he himself vanquishes this formidable opponent in as dramatic and impressive a fashion as possible.

Hushai deliberately emphasizes that David is Avshalom’s father because every young man idealizes and wants to romanticize and exaggerate the greatness of his father. In a son’s mind, he, too, partakes of that greatness by virtue of being the father’s child. So Hushai magnifies both the image of David’s near-invincibility on the battlefield as well as Avshalom’s self-image as heir to that mightiness and valor. The dream of a “battle royale” with David’s army appeals not only to the honor-hungry Avshalom but to his troops as well.

Once again, it is Hushai’s psychological insight into the mind of Avshalom that enables him to succeed in sabotaging the rebellion. Ultimately, of course, Hushai’s real plan is to buy time for David by delaying the conflict as well as to make sure that Avshalom himself enters into the battle so he can be strategically eliminated.

Ahitophel’s reaction to Avshalom’s decision seems rash but it is warranted. Ahitophel was used to advising David, a humble, principled and essentially well intentioned king who was interested in the wisest and most effective strategies, not the ones that would buy him glory. Ahitophel realizes that the ego of Avshalom is eclipsing his intellect and will eventually cause his kingdom to unravel; if not in the first conflict, then not long afterwards.

Ahitophel correctly recognizes not only that Hushai’s plan is doomed to fail but that the character flaw in Avshalom – his seeking the most glorious route rather than the wisest – is a fatal defect. Knowing that the revolt would fail and that he would ultimately be condemned as a traitor to David, Ahitophel ended his life in what seemed to him a more noble way.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 16

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 16

This chapter begins with two encounters between David and representatives of the house of Shaul. First, Tziva, who manages the estate of Shaul and whom David had charged with serving and supporting Mefivoshet, intercepts David on his way into hiding. Tziva has brought along saddled donkeys, two hundred loaves of bread, one hundred raisin cakes, fruits and a container of wine. Tziva explains that he has come to offer these provisions to David and his men and to show his support for them.

David then asks Tziva why Mefivoshet has not joined him. Tziva tells David that Mefivoshet viewed the exile of David positively, as a sign that he would be restored to his rightful position as heir to the throne of Israel. Upon hearing this, David reverses his earlier command and declares that ownership of Shaul’s estate should be stripped from Mefivoshet and transferred to Tziva. Tziva bows to David in gratitude for this gift.

David’s group is then approached by Shimi ben Gera, a member of Shaul’s family. Shimi curses David, throws rocks at him and casts dust in his direction, accusing him of wickedness and bloodshed and alleging that his exile was a fitting punishment for him because of all the crimes he had committed against the house of Shaul. Avishai ben Tzeruyah offers to kill Shimi ben Gera for his insolent behavior toward David; David orders him to leave Shimi alone.

David speculates that Shimi is merely a mouthpiece for the Almighty and is not speaking of his own accord; Hashem may see David’s suffering and humble acceptance of the insults and favor him because of this. Moreover, David observes that his own son has deposed him and seeks to kill him so it is no surprise that a relative of Shaul would have harsh words for him. David and his men arrive at their temporary hideout in a state of exhaustion and encamp in order to refresh themselves.

Meanwhile, Avshalom enters Jerusalem and is greeted by Hushai, who repeatedly hails him as the new king. Avshalom is at first skeptical of this gesture and questions Hushai’s sudden disloyalty to his good friend David. Hushai explains that his allegiance is to the king of Israel chosen by Hashem, not to any one person; and anyway, Avshalom is the rightful heir and successor of David, and deserves his support.

Avshalom asks Ahitophel what his next course of action should be. Ahitophel realizes that the inhabitants of Jerusalem may be afraid to accept Avshalom as king. They still view the situation as unstable and unpredictable and may hold out hope that Avshalom and his father will one day make peace and put an end to the conflict. David might then be restored to power and the citizens of Yerushalayim will be branded as traitors for having agreed so quickly to aid the rebels.

Therefore, Ahitophel recommends that Avshalom lie with the concubines that David left in the palace to oversee the household. Aside from symbolically demonstrating that he has officially “taken over” as king, this effectively eliminates any possibility of a future reconciliation between father and son. Avshalom accepts the advice of Ahitophel and takes it even further – he sets a tent up on the roof of the palace and has relations with the concubines publicly. This public violation of David’s wives was the fulfilment of the prophecy of punishment decreed upon David for his sin with Batsheva.

The juxtaposition of David’s meetings with Tziva and Shimi ben Gera is very instructive. David’s response to Tziva is deeply problematic and illustrates his lack of “presence of mind” as a result of the stress that he is experiencing. As readers, we can see that Tziva is an opportunist who is taking advantage of the political upheaval in order to regain his footing in the house of Shaul and to once again displace Mefivoshet, the rightful heir.

Indeed, David’s judgment fails him on several counts here. Did he reasonably expect Mefivoshet, who was severely disabled, to travel long distances in order to join David in exile? Was it fair or prudent to issue a ruling on such a contentious case without hearing the arguments on both sides? What happened to David’s sense of moral and ethical obligation to support and protect the descendants of Yonatan?

Finally, was Tziva’s explanation of Mefivoshet’s absence truly reasonable – does it make sense that Mefivoshet would see himself as a possible beneficiary of Avshalom’s rebellion and that he would believe that the ambitious Avshalom would want to restore power to the lame grandson of Shaul?

One gets the impression that David is reaching this decision impulsively and under duress, much like the choices he made at Nov when he was on the run from Shaul that endangered the city and unwittingly caused a massacre. In a moment of weakness and vulnerability, David is allowing himself to be influenced by lashon hara, evil speech, in a manner inconsistent with his usual commitment to justice. His need for support and comradery at this difficult time has overwhelmed his better judgment.

Shimi ben Gera can be seen, in a way, as a corrective “punishment” for this lapse of David. Shimi’s attacks and insults are likewise based upon “lashon hara”, slanderous rumors about David that were in fact false. David believed in and acted upon the scandalous allegations of Tziva against Mefivoshet, and Shimi is convinced by and is proclaiming similarly false accusations against David. There is poetic justice here, measure for measure, and this may explain David’s conviction that Hashem has sent Shimi to communicate the message he proclaims.

Hushai’s method of gaining the trust of Avshalom reveals his wisdom and psychological insight, more of which we will learn about in the next chapter. Aside from his persuasive and flattering explanation of his decision to defect to Avshalom’s camp, Hushai is also careful not to protest against or even opine on Ahitophel’s recommendation that Avshalom sleep with David’s concubines. He realizes that he is “on probation” and that any objection he raises, no matter how slight, will cast aspersions on the sincerity of his commitment to Avshalom’s cause.

Standing by silently and allowing the concubines to be violated, although he must have found this act deeply disturbing, earned him the standing he sought as a “company man” and built up the credibility he would need to accomplish his mission of infiltrating the regime of Avshalom. His ability to think strategically under such complex and potentially dangerous circumstances is a credit to his political acumen and his keen understanding of the nuances of human emotion and motivation.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 15

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 15

This is the first of five chapters that are devoted to the rebellion of Avshalom. Avshalom is the consummate politician, patiently and persistently building a following among the Jewish people over many years. He purchases a chariot and horses and hires fifty attendants to serve as his entourage. Then, using considerable political acumen, he brilliantly capitalizes on any lingering dissatisfaction with the current regime. Avshalom makes sure to get up early in the morning every day so that he is the first person in front of the palace. When people arrive from all over the country with cases to bring before the king, Avshalom greets them and listens to their arguments.

Avshalom tells them that the current administration will not be inclined to help them but that if he were in charge, they would certainly be vindicated in their claims. When citizens would prostrate themselves before Avshalom out of respect and deference, he would lift them up, embracing and kissing them instead. In this way, he effectively establishes a broad base of support across all segments of the population.

After many years, Avshalom informs David that he plans to travel to Hevron to fulfill an oath he had taken. Avshalom recounts that when he was living in Geshur and his future was still uncertain, he swore that, were he to be returned to Jerusalem, he would offer sacrifices to the Almighty. In the meantime, Avshalom has planted emissaries throughout the cities of Israel who are poised to declare that Avshalom is the new king of Israel and now rules in Hevron.

David hears the news and immediately orders his men to flee Jerusalem, as their lives are all in serious danger. Except for ten concubines left behind to tend to the household, all of David’s servants depart with him. We then read about a series of people who each desire to join David in exile and each of whom receives a different response.

Itai HaGitti is a non-Jew who followed David since his time in Gat (when he was on the run from Shaul and living in the land of the Pelishtim) and who has chosen to reside in Jerusalem and serve as one of David’s top generals. David urges him to return either to the city or to his homeland; as a foreigner, Itai has no specific attachment to Israel, nor does he have anything to fear from Avshalom. Itai, echoing the words of Rut to her mother-in-law Naomi, declares his absolute allegiance to David and his willingness to follow him wherever he may go.

Tzadoq the High Priest and all of the Levites then arrive, carrying the Ark of the Covenant with them. David orders them to return to Jerusalem, which he has consecrated as the permanent abode of the Ark. If God wills that David be restored to his kingship, he will return to the Ark, but if he does not return, the Ark should remain in Jerusalem regardless. He also suggests that the younger Kohanim, Ahimaatz and Yonatan, may be helpful spies if they stay back in the city and convey critical information to David while he is in hiding.

David and his men ascend the Mount of Olives, weeping and with heads covered. At this point, David is informed that Ahitophel, the most brilliant adviser and tactician in the entire realm, has allied himself with Avshalom. Ahitophel’s genius in military strategy was so formidable that it would render Avshalom practically unbeatable. This alarms David, and he offers a brief prayer to Hashem, asking that He confound the counsel of Ahitophel.

Immediately after concluding his prayer, David encounters his closest friend and adviser, Hushai, who has come to accompany him into exile. Hushai is advanced in years and David feels that traveling with him would be an unnecessary burden. David instead requests from Hushai that he return to Jerusalem and present himself as a supporter of Avshalom who is loyal not to David in particular but to whomever of his descendants occupies the throne.

This way Hushai can attempt to gain entry into the “situation room” and sabotage whatever guidance Ahitophel tries to provide to Avshalom. This will also enable Hushai to pass along classified information and other secrets to David through the young Kohanim who are loyal to him. Hushai agrees and arrives in Jerusalem before Avshalom, so that nobody knows he has been commiserating with David and his claim to be on the side of the rebellion appears credible.

There are many important ideas to explore in this fairly lengthy chapter; we will highlight just a few. The first noteworthy subject is the political strategy of Avshalom. Notwithstanding his evil intentions, there is much to learn from his methodical approach to gaining power. His first step is to project an image of power and influence by acquiring a chariot and a professional entourage.

His second move is to be exceptionally proactive in exploiting any feelings of resentment, dissatisfaction or disenchantment with the current regime. Everyone wants to believe and to be told that they are right and their cause is just, and Avshalom provides them with that validation and therefore gains in popularity.

This also explains why Avshalom sets up his capital in Hevron, which David “left behind” when he relocated the capital to Yerushalayim. It stands to reason that there were people in Hevron who were upset about David’s abandonment of them and of his “natural allies”, the tribe of Yehuda, and who might be inclined to follow Avshalom.

The third element of Avshalom’s strategy is his portrayal of himself as a populist; you don’t bow down to Avshalom, you hug or kiss him, he may seem superior to you but he is one of the people. Ordinary citizens inevitably feel some resentment or distrust of those who wield power, perceiving them as elitist, aloof, distant and indifferent to the concerns of the man on the street; by contradicting this perception with his show of false humility, Avshalom further endears himself to his constituents.

Notice that the text specifically mentions that, before hearing about their cases, Avshalom asked each visiting litigant where he was from; in other words, he showed a personal interest in them by inquiring about their background as individuals and connected with them on a more intimate level, they were not mere “subjects” but were human beings worthy of his attention.

More than anything else, one must be impressed by Avshalom’s patience and forbearance in plotting his rebellion. Avshalom is calm and calculated and therefore quite dangerous; his ambition and inner discipline are what allow him to succeed in the long term and complex project of overthrowing his father. We have seen this quality of Avshalom previously, when he waited quietly for two years before finally seizing the opportunity to punish Amnon for violating Avshalom’s sister, Tamar.
It is also difficult to ignore the similarities between Avshalom’s political strategy and the style of modern election campaigns. The management of the candidate’s image, efforts to tarnish the reputation of an opponent or to capitalize on pre-existent disappointment in the current administration for political advantage, the emphasis on the humanity and accessibility of the candidate who portrays himself as a man of the people as contrasted with the “out of touch” political insiders who are wedded to the establishment, and the penchant for promising everyone everything that they want and telling constituents whatever they wish to hear in order to win their “votes” all sound familiar to contemporary ears. Apparently political culture has not changed too much in the last 3,000 years.

One question to be asked is what the relevance of Avshalom’s politicking is to the prophetic message of the Book of Shemuel? Sure, it is clever and creative, but why does Hashem want us to know this? I believe the answer is very clear and extremely important. When great leaders withdraw, disconnect and become passive, they leave a vacuum that will inevitably be filled by ambitious people like Avshalom. The success of Avshalom’s tactics demonstrate how far removed David was from being a significant presence in the daily life of the citizens of Israel.

This is why David flees the palace so quickly and enjoys such minimal support from his subjects; he has lost interest in them, and they in him, so Avshalom easily works his way into their hearts by occupying the void that David created. Had David continued to be the inspiring, confident and fearless leader he had been in his earlier years, the rebellion of Avshalom would have had no chance whatsoever. However, David’s adopting this passive attitude toward governance gave the green light to Avshalom to pursue his agenda by alienating the population and even convincing Ahitophel, his long-time adviser, that the future was with Avshalom and not with David.

We will hopefully address David’s reaction to the arrival of the Ark in a future summary when we discuss how David understood this whole ordeal, and his role, from a religious perspective. For now, one last matter to consider is the prayer of David, which reveals to us an important lesson as to the philosophy of prayer in Judaism. David recognizes the threat posed by the involvement of Ahitophel and prays to Hashem for Ahitophel’s influence to be neutralized; moments later, Hushai appears and becomes David’s “agent” for accomplishing that goal. David understood that prayer to Hashem is no substitute for human effort; if anything, the process of prayer clarifies for us what steps we need to take to achieve our desired objectives, so that we rely on Hashem to handle only those aspects of the situation that lay beyond the sphere of our influence.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 14

The Reading

The Summary


Shemuel Bet Chapter 14

Yoav, David’s general, realizes that David is still pining for his son Avshalom who remains in exile in Geshur. Unwilling to confront or advise him directly, Yoav devises a roundabout strategy to bring the issue to the attention of David and force him to address the problem. Yoav approaches a wise woman from Teqoa and asks her to present a fictitious legal case to the king that will serve as a kind of parable or metaphor that will help him to reflect on his own situation in a different light..

The woman disguises herself as a mourner and explains to David that she is a widow with two sons. The children got involved in a dispute and one of her sons killed his brother. The family now wants to put the murderer to death. This would leave the mother bereft not only of her husband but both of her children; this would be cause her to experience unimaginable suffering and would erase any vestige of her late husband’s memory by eliminating his only surviving heir.

At first, David recommends that the woman return home and promises that he will deal with her case. This vague assurance does not satisfy her; unwilling to settle for platitudes, she requests some more immediate and concrete action from the king. David then suggests that she bring anyone who attempts to harm her to court and he will punish the offending party; this, too, is not a reasonable solution for the helpless widow. Finally, David swears that he will not permit any harm to come to her surviving son, despite the fact that he committed murder.

At this point, the woman draws an analogy between her circumstances and those of the king himself. Like the widow, David has lost one son, Amnon, to murder by Avshalom; nevertheless, punishing the killer would mean tremendous suffering for David who would now have lost two sons. And condemning Avshalom to a permanent state of exile, banishing him from the kingdom and cutting all ties with him, is the psychological equivalent of executing him. David now realizes that the woman had a hidden agenda with her story and demands to know whether Yoav was behind the whole production. She confirms his suspicions and acknowledges that Yoav did, indeed, instruct her to convey the message that she shared.

David accepts the advice of Yoav and orders him to return Avshalom from Geshur to Jerusalem. However, David refuses to meet with Avshalom face to face. The text interjects that Avshalom was an exceptionally handsome man with three sons and one daughter. It goes on to tell us that Avshalom’s beautiful, long, thick hair would be cut only once a year. The relevance of the detailed description of Avshalom’s appearance to our chapter is unclear, and there are several possible explanations for its inclusion here.

One possibility is that we are being offered a reason why David was so attached to Avshalom and why he resisted banishing him for good; Avshalom’s ravishing good looks made him an ideal heir to the throne. Another interpretation might be that it accounts for some of Avshalom’s rash and immature behavior; like Yosef, another Biblical character who is handsome, successful and “spoiled”, Avshalom has an exaggerated sense of self from a young age and this can lead him to act in ways that are inappropriate. A third possibility, endorsed by Radaq, is that the text is telling us what it was about Avshalom that attracted so many people to his campaign to overthrow David; however, this doesn’t quite explain why it is mentioned in this chapter rather than the next chapter.

Avshalom repeatedly summons Yoav to arrange an audience for him with his father, but Yoav ignores his invitations. Eventually, Avshalom directs his servants to set fire to Yoav’s barley field and this prompts Yoav to arrive at Avshalom’s house quickly and angrily. Avshalom demands that Yoav tell David that he would have been better off remaining in Geshur; if the king wants Avshalom to be in Jerusalem, he should at least be willing to see him, and if he deserves to die, then the king should kill him. Leaving him in a state of limbo is unfair. Yoav convinces David to allow Avshalom to visit him at the palace. Avshalom appears before David and bows down; David kisses his son, indicating a kind of “official pardon” for the crime that Avshalom committed.

On an emotional level, reading this chapter leaves us confused and conflicted; I believe this effect is deliberate. On one hand, we can sympathize with the argument of the woman from Teqoa and the sentiments of David, and we can understand his desire to reconcile with his son. On the other hand, we are worried about the propriety of welcoming a cold blooded, calculated killer back home with open arms; this concern is supported by the evidence we see of Avshalom’s immature and aggressive behavior toward Yoav and his eventual rebellion against and plot to kill his own father. It is clear that Avshalom is capable of some pretty dastardly deeds when he feels they are justified.

From a purely religious perspective, we see here the further downfall of David Hamelekh. His constant consultation with Hashem – whether via the prophets or Urim Vetummim – was the signature of his Torah-based approach to governance. In our chapter, David seems to have totally abandoned that methodology. Now, he is allowing his emotions to be swayed by Yoav and is reaching decisions that are inconsistent with his core values.

The David of yesteryear would not have hesitated to reject, spurn and even execute Avshalom for the premeditated murder of his brother; in the past, David had no compunction about holding others accountable for their misdeeds, even when the outcomes of those deeds were of potential benefit to him. Here, we witness David capitulating to his sentimental side, listening to his heart and showing preferential treatment to his own child in a way that contravenes the principles of justice that should have been guiding him. From David’s conduct we can already sense that he, too, was aware of the inner conflict that plagued him and was struggling with it; first he consigned Avshalom to exile and merely pined for him, then he brought him back to Jerusalem but declined to meet with him, then finally he reunited with him but in a cordial, almost purely formal manner.

We cannot avoid comparing the errors of David here to the earlier mistakes of his predecessor Shaul; indeed, one of Shaul’s first missteps was in sparing the life of his own son because of the pressure exerted upon him by the people, and here we find David following a similar path. Undoubtedly, the text is suggesting to us that David has lost a substantial amount of the clarity and religious focus that once defined his leadership. As we will see in chapters to come, this reintroduction of Avshalom into the picture will ultimately bring much suffering and punishment in its wake, and our fingers can only be pointed at David, who should not have allowed himself to be taken in by the rhetoric of Yoav when it was against his better judgment. As is often the case in Tanakh, the hardship David will experience is trouble that he brought upon himself due to his poor judgment.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 13

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 13

This chapter details the troubling incident of “Amnon and Tamar”. Amnon is the firstborn son of David and has fallen madly in love with Tamar, who is apparently his very beautiful half-sister from another mother (we will address this issue at the conclusion of the summary). He does not feel comfortable approaching her romantically but is paralyzed with sorrow over his obsession with her. His friend and cousin, Yonadav, advises him to feign being ill and request that Tamar personally tend to him, preparing and serving him food. This will give him the opportunity to interact with her privately and perhaps develop some connection.

This suggestion meets with Amnon’s approval; he pretends to be sick and asks for Tamar to come and prepare pancakes for him and feed him on his sickbed. King David sends Tamar to fulfill the request of Amnon. She arrives, kneads the dough and prepares the cakes in Amnon’s presence. When they are ready, Amnon refuses to eat until everyone else has left the area. He then asks for Tamar to bring the food into his bedroom and feed him there. When she draws close to him to offer him the pancakes, he grabs hold of her and attempts to force himself on her. She resists, urging him to speak to the king about marrying her and not to sexually assault her and bring shame upon both of them. Amnon does not listen to her and rapes her.

As soon as the act is completed, Amnon’s emotions undergo a total reversal – he feels nothing but hatred and revulsion for Tamar, and – over her tearful objections – casts her out of his chamber, referring to her derisively as “that woman”. Tamar was wearing the multicolored garment that the maiden daughters of the king typically wore; she tore her garment, placed ashes on her head, and went on her way, weeping. Avshalom, her brother, immediately surmises what has happened; when she confirms his suspicions, he cautions her to keep it a secret to protect the honor of the family. However, Avshalom never again speaks to Amnon. King David hears of all that has transpired but is powerless to take any action against his son.

Two years later, Avshalom is planning a shearing party for his flocks near the land of Ephraim and he invites the entire royal family to attend. David declines repeated invitations to the celebration, not wanting to leave the palace unoccupied for the outing. Avshalom therefore asks if Amnon may join the party instead of the king; although David is surprised by this unusual request, he grants it.

Meanwhile, Avshalom prepares his servants to ambush Amnon when he arrives; they kill him in retribution for his dishonoring of Tamar. Word initially comes to David that all of the king’s sons were killed, and he responds by beginning to mourn their losses. Eventually, a messenger clarifies that only Amnon has been killed. Avshalom flees to Geshur to live with his grandparents for three years (his mother was the daughter of the king of Geshur). As time passes, David is comforted for the loss of Amnon, but pines for Avshalom who has escaped and forsaken him.

These deeply troubling developments are clearly the beginning of the punishments that Natan foretold would plague David and his household – namely, “the sword will never leave your house”. A careful reader may notice strong similarities and parallels between this narrative and the story of Yosef told in the Book of Beresheet.

Most obviously, the coat of many colors worn by Tamar is strikingly reminiscent of the one worn by Yosef and is called “ketonet passim”, exactly the same term that the Torah uses to describe Yosef’s garment. In our story we have a “stalker” who creates a situation where he is alone with the object of his affections so he can take advantage of her; this is similar to the wife of Potifar’s efforts to get Yosef alone so she could seduce him.

The stories of Amnon and Tamar and of Yosef both involve family drama of a very serious nature; in one case, brother murders brother, in the other, brothers contemplate and ALMOST murder brother. In both stories, a son is estranged or separate from his father for a significant period of time and they eventually reunite. In both stories, a father sends his child or children right into the clutches of one who wishes to harm them; David sends Tamar to Amnon and Amnon to Avshalom, and Yaaqov sends Yosef to his brothers.

Moreover, there are two phrases that appear in the story of Amnon and Tamar and that are strikingly evocative of the story of Yosef. One is Amnon’s command “take every man out of my presence”, which are the exact words that Yosef uses before revealing his identity to his brothers; the other is “he mourned over his son all the days” to characterize David’s reaction to the loss of either Amnon or Avshalom (it is not clear which one), which is itself reminiscent of the description of Yaaqov who, in his belief that Yosef had died “mourned over his son many days.” We cannot escape the conclusion that these parallels are deliberate – what do they mean and what are they intended to teach us?

I believe the text means to highlight thematic commonalities between the narratives of Amnon-Tamar and Yosef that can help us read between the lines and grasp a deeper message in the story. Although he does not point to these specific clues in the text, Ralbag identifies one of the main ideas that explain the parallels. We learned several chapters ago that David placed his sons in positions of power even from a young age; the Ralbag comments that this was an error on David’s part. He groomed them, as it were, to follow in his footsteps and continue his legacy, and he granted them too much influence when they were not yet prepared to handle it.

We can apply this insight of Ralbag and advance it a few steps further to explain the link between this story and the story of Yosef. We can imagine – and we indeed observe – that, after receiving the devastating rebuke from Natan for his sin with Batsheva, David preferred to recede to the background and play a more passive and peripheral role in the kingdom. He was no longer as motivated or ambitious as he once had been and he was constantly wary of the impending consequences he knew would be visited upon him.David’s removal of himself from the scene enabled his children to play an even more active role in the affairs of state and in palace politics, and led to the intrigue we read about in this chapter and in chapters to come to carry on unchecked.

The story of Yaaqov and Yosef exemplifies the same problem. The first verse of Parashat Vayeshev tells us that Yaaqov settled in the land of Canaan, implying that he figured that his struggles, trials and tribulations were over, that he could retire and focus on passing the baton of leadership to the next generation, specifically to Yosef. The Rabbis say that it was precisely this decision on Yaaqov’s part that created and exacerbated the internal strife in the family and that nearly caused the death of Yosef at the hands of his brothers.

Yaaqov trusted too much in the wisdom and maturity of his sons, unwittingly feeding the ego of Yosef with special treatment and relying on the prudence and good judgment of the brothers who he assumed would not harm Yosef. In taking a back seat, Yaaqov allowed Yosef to provoke his brothers and also enabled the brothers to take it upon themselves to determine his fate, since they perceived Yaaqov as no longer an active player in the governance of the family.

One of the messages here is that it is incumbent upon a leader not to recede from the scene prematurely. As critical as it is for elders to “let go” and allow the younger generation to play a part in shaping their future, this can only be done gradually and when it is clear that the youth are prepared for the task. Leaders should step out of the picture when they see that the groundwork has been laid for a solid process of succession and not simply because they are too tired, too depressed or would prefer to enjoy a longer retirement.

Such personal motives may blind them to reality and persuade them that the individuals who will be taking over are more qualified for the task than is actually the case.
Yaaqov and David both abdicated their positions of influence too soon and caused tremendous damage as a result; both of them were forced to endure the estrangement from and “loss” of the very children they believed would be their saviors and would carry the torch forward on their behalf.

One final note about Tamar. In her words to Amnon, she implies that, were the king to be petitioned, she and Amnon could actually be legally wed. This is perplexing if we take the text at face value, since Tamar is Amnon’s half-sister and would be Biblically forbidden from marrying him. The Sages of the Talmud, quoted by many traditional commentaries, state that Maakha, Tamar’s mother, was a captive woman that David had relations with before she converted to Judaism, and that she was conceived while her mother was still a gentile. This meant that, according to the technical halakha, Tamar was not actually related to David or to Avshalom (although Avshalom and Tamar shared both a mother and a father, Avshalom was conceived and born after his mother became a Jewess.)

The Abarbanel rejects this interpretation as far-fetched and argues that Tamar’s claim to Amnon was simply a ruse to convince him not to assault her; they could not have actually gotten married. In fact, the Abarbanel takes issue with the halakhic principle invoked by the commentaries, which is remarkable but goes beyond the scope of our discussion.

I would like to suggest an alternative possibility. Tamar may have been the daughter of Maakha from a previous husband, and therefore not blood related to Amnon or David. She would have been a biological half-brother of Avshalom (which explains why the text refers to her several times as the sister of Avshalom) and would have been the stepdaughter of David, which would account for the fact that she is occasionally called Amnon’s sister as well.

If this is the case, then Amnon and Tamar could have been legally married if David had permitted it; although they lived in the same home and were part of the same family socially speaking, they were not related by blood. Consider the Brady Bunch as an instance of this kind of “blended family” where the boys and girls grow up as brothers and sisters but don’t actually share a biological parent. After proposing this hypothesis, it came to my attention that the commentary of Tosafot in Masekhet Sanhedrin offer the same explanation.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 12

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 12

Natan the Prophet visits King David and presents him with a message from Hashem for his consideration. There were two neighbors, a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had many flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. The poor man, on the other hand, had only one lamb, which he treated like a “pet” or member of the family that would eat, drink and even sleep with him at night.

One day, a visitor happened to arrive at the wealthy man’s home; however, rather than slaughtering one of his own animals to provide a meal for his guest, the host took and slaughtered and prepared his destitute neighbor’s little lamb. Upon hearing the story, David becomes angry and declares that the perpetrator is worthy of death and should be required to pay four times the value of the stolen sheep “because he did this action and because he had no pity”.
Natan confronts David and states that the whole vignette was a mere metaphor – in fact, King David himself is the one who committed this crime in taking Batsheva from Uriyah and having the latter killed. Hashem has decreed that David will be punished in two ways: the sword (i.e., violent conflict) will never depart from his household, and his wives will be publically taken from him by his adversary.
David immediately acknowledges his guilt in having sinned against Hashem, and Natan assures him that he will not pay with his life for this transgression. However, the baby that Batsheva bore to him will not survive. The baby becomes ill and David fasts and prays, lying on the ground and refusing to be distracted from his supplications. On the seventh day, the child dies, and David’s attendants are anxious about informing him because they are afraid that he will have difficulty accepting the news.

When he notices them whispering, David realizes that the child has passed away; when he asks, his servants confirm that this is true. David immediately rises up from his place on the ground, washes and anoints himself, changes his clothes, visits the House of God to worship, and sits down to eat. The attendants of David are perplexed and question his behavior: when the child was sick David was profoundly emotional about the situation, fasting and praying continually; now, with the child dead, shouldn’t his reaction be even more intense and extreme?

David explains that, as long as the baby was alive, there was a possibility that fasting, repentance and prayer could elicit mercy from the Almighty; however, now that he has departed from the world, there is no more purpose in praying for him. There are fascinating lessons to be learned regarding the philosophy of repentance, prayer and acceptance of reality from this incident, but they are beyond the scope of our summaries.

David comforts Batsheva and they have another child together, whom they name Shelomo; Natan the prophet visits and calls him “Yedidya”, “beloved of God”, on behalf of Hashem. This is a sign that, one way or another, David’s sin has been forgiven and his dynasty will be established. Shelomo, as we know, will eventually be heir to the throne.

Yoav is close to capturing the city of Rabbat and sends word to David to join him on the battlefield so that the victory will be attributed to David and not to his general alone. David gathers soldiers together and arrives at Rabbat in time to finish off the attack. He takes the defeated king’s bejeweled crown, places it upon his own head and confiscates the plentiful spoils of war. After subjecting the surviving citizens of Ammon to harsh punishments, David and the people return to Jerusalem.

It is interesting to note that David does not dedicate the spoils of this battle to Hashem; this could be a further indication of his losing perspective on his role in Hashem’s plan, or could reflect his feeling of distance from Hashem in the aftermath of his transgression. One of the trends in David we will observe from now on is his tendency to be passive and almost fatalistic in his attitudes and responses. The harsh message from Natan has long term “traumatic” effects.

There is so much to comment upon in this chapter but brevity demands that we limit ourselves to one key issue. One of the most difficult challenges that faces the student of Sefer Shemuel is the relatively “light” sentence pronounced upon David for his heinous crime. He will suffer but his position as king remains secure. Shaul, by contrast, lost his kingdom merely because he failed to carry out the complete destruction of Amaleq, a seemingly minor transgression compared to David’s. How do we explain the disparity in God’s judgment and treatment of the two rulers?

Rav Yosef Albo, in Sefer HaIqqarim, resolves this problem by distinguishing between the nature of the two violations. Shaul failed to fulfill a mitzvah that applied to him as king of Israel, the commandment to exterminate Amaleq. Since his error was one of kingly governance, the consequence was loss of the kingdom. David, on the other hand, sinned as an ordinary human being – adultery and murder are sins that apply to all people in all places at all times. Because his transgression was not specifically “royal” in character, he was not deposed from his position as a result of it.

I find this classic solution a bit problematic. After all, the story of David is, in fact, depicting his failure as king of Israel – David abused his power and violated the sacred trust placed in him in order to gratify his own personal whims. This should certainly disqualify him from the kingship at least as much as Shaul’s transgressions would have. Therefore, I would like to suggest an alternative answer to this question.

Shaul failed because of a deeply-rooted character flaw; his mistakes formed a clear and consistent pattern. Shaul regularly succumbed to social and political pressure and sought the approval of others rather than heeding the voice of Hashem. He allowed his insecurity and need for love to dominate his decision-making processes and behavior, and was therefore not capable of governing in an effective and principled manner. Obviously, he could have addressed and corrected this personality defect; however, rather than confront its pernicious and damaging influence and overcome it, he chose to ignore it and make excuses for it. He let this weakness define him and was therefore unworthy of serving as King of Israel.

David, on the other hand, was a fundamentally principled person who constantly weighed his decisions and actions in light of the will of God. Needing the approval of no one but the Almighty, David rarely if ever allowed himself to be influenced by the expectations or demands of other human beings, and therefore remained a steadfast source of true Torah-based guidance and leadership. As opposed to the sins of Shaul that were consistent with and further deepened his underlying imperfections, for David the situation with Batsheva was the exception, rather than the rule. What makes the story so shocking is precisely the fact that it is totally out of character for David – this is not the way we are accustomed to seeing him behave.

This is why it is easy for David, with some prompting from Natan, to perceive the error of his ways and acknowledge his mistake – it is not a part of who he is in the same way that Shaul’s transgressions were part of who he was. David was not acting out of inner psychological compulsion; he was overwhelmed by external temptation in a moment of weakness and failed to subdue his instinctual drives. David is allowed to remain king of Israel because of his core character, and although he erred grievously in this circumstance, his general approach to governance and the basic makeup of his personality made him a worthy and capable ruler overall. Dismissing him would have amounted to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 11

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 11
This chapter represents the turning point of the entire story of King David. For the first time, we find David remaining behind in the palace while he sends Yoav, his general, and the army of Israel to lay siege to Rabbat, the capital of Ammon. One evening, following an afternoon nap, David is strolling on the palace roof and observes a beautiful woman bathing. He investigates and discovers that she is Batsheva, wife of one of his finest officers, Uriah the Hittite. He sends for her and they have relations together; she subsequently informs him that she has become pregnant from the encounter.

Hoping to keep his indiscretion a secret, David summons Uriah from the battlefield, meets with him briefly, and sends him home to his wife. Much to David’s chagrin, Uriah does not spend the night with Batsheva; instead, he sleeps in the company of his fellow soldiers.
David calls Uriah for another meeting the following day and asks him why he did not go home the previous night. Uriah responds that it would be inappropriate for him to be eating, drinking and sleeping with his wife while the Ark of the Covenant accompanies the army of Israel and Jewish troops are encamped on the battlefield.

David shares a meal with Uriah and manages to get him intoxicated; however, he again spends the night with the soldiers and does not visit Batsheva. His options exhausted, David composes a letter to Yoav instructing him to place Uriah on the front lines of the next military operation and to ensure that he is killed in battle; not knowing the contents of the missive, Uriah himself delivers this “top secret” communication to Yoav. Yoav carries out the instructions of David and sends back a message to David with a report on the progress of the siege. He tells the messenger that after David responds to the debriefing, he should also be informed that Uriah has died.

Once David has been informed of the latest developments, he sends back word to Yoav, encouraging him not to dwell too much on the loss of Uriah since casualties at war are inevitable. After she has finished mourning the death of her husband, David quickly marries Batsheva, so that the birth of their first child will not be suspect. It goes without saying that this incident did not find favor in the eyes of Hashem.

This story disturbs the reader on many levels and has been the subject of volumes worth of commentary. There are several questions here that demand our attention. Most importantly, how can we explain the egregious moral lapses of David, whom we have come to know as a religiously devout and consummately ethical human being? How did he rationalize this behavior?

Second, how is David allowed to remain married to Batsheva and for Shelomo, the son they have together, to become heir to the throne? Jewish law dictates that participants in an extra-marital affair are forbidden from marrying, even if their spouses die or divorce them. Third, how is David placed on such a pedestal as the ideal Jewish king and forefather of the Messiah when he committed such terrible transgressions? Shaul, his adversary, lost his kingdom for lesser offenses!

These last two questions will be addressed in greater detail in the next chapter; for now, we will focus on the first.

The Sages of the Talmud record two opinions on the matter of David’s sin; one that takes the description of his behavior literally as written, and one that “rationalizes” it. The second approach, which is the most famous among traditionalists, is that legally speaking David did not commit any transgression. This view maintains that all Jewish soldiers who went out to war gave bills of divorce to their wives in case they were lost in battle, so that they would not leave their spouses unable to marry if their whereabouts were unknown. If so, Batsheva was not technically married to Uriah at the time she had the tryst with David, and would have been able to marry him after Uriah’s death.

This school of thought also claims that Uriah defied David’s orders to return to his home, referred to Yoav as his master in the presence of the King, and even disrespected David by insinuating that his directions were inappropriate under the circumstances. This gave the king the legal right to have him executed. According to this, David did not violate any actual laws of the Torah here. However, even these rabbis would agree that David sinned – he says so, the prophet says so, and Hashem says so. The only point they are making is that the sin was not a legal one, it was moral and ethical in nature.

The main issue to bear in mind is that whether David was in legal violation of the 613 commandments is not the essential theme of the Book of Shemuel. The Rabbis and traditional commentaries, by claiming “one who says that David sinned is mistaken”, are trying to convey the idea that his sins were not legal transgressions but failings of character. We are not supposed to focus on the halakhic intricacies of his conduct, and to do so is to be blind to the prophetic message here.

Up until this point, David has never used his power or influence for personal gratification or self-promotion. He has never manipulated or abused his position as king. In fact, this has been the quality of David that consistently amazes and impresses us. So it is shocking to witness him casting aside the values that have convinced the reader to love and admire him so much!

The text gives us a sense of how this failure of David came to be. In the opening sentences of the chapter, we are told that David sent his men out to battle while he stayed back at the palace. He even enjoyed the luxury of afternoon naps while his troops fought and died on his behalf. Uriah’s speech to David implicitly takes him to task for this very failing – he has begun to enjoy the luxury of being the king, and to fancy himself “above” the menial job of defending and supporting his nation. This attitude was what led him to take another man’s wife and then play games to cover up his misdeed, ultimately orchestrating Uriah’s untimely death.

Halakhically justifiable or not – and we must assume David rationalized it some way or another – the text reveals to us David’s true motive and the nature of his sin. He had resisted amassing horses and wealth when he was still on the battlefield with his troops. However, after a while, partaking of the high life in the palace went to his head and he could not resist taking Batsheva and then doing whatever was necessary to hide his indiscretion.

On a textual level, Sefer Shemuel highlights the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” transformation of David – his reversal from the ideal King of the previous chapter who meticulously follows the Torah’s laws prohibiting the king from acquiring too many horses or too much wealth, but who now takes women that he is not supposed to have, precisely one of the areas of the king’s behavior that the Torah regulates. Moreover, our chapter describes David writing a “book”; namely, the death warrant of Uriah that is sent to Yoav. There is deliberate irony here, because the Torah also commands the king to write a “book” – the Sefer Torah! David’s actions have fallen short of and even contradict the instructions of the Torah at this moment in his carreer.

One interesting point for further study and reflection is the role of Yoav and Uriah in the drama. Did they know that something was afoot? One gets the sense that Uriah may have gathered that David was “up to something” with his seemingly unnecessary meetings and questions about Uriah’s personal life; this may account for his harsher tone in his second encounter with the king. Yoav must also have suspected that David had a clandestine reason for wanting Uriah to be “eliminated” while preserving the appearance that it was a casualty of war. We may never know exactly who knew or suspected what, but it is fascinating to try to read between the lines with these questions in mind.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 10

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 10

Nahash, the king of Ammon, dies and his son Hanun reigns in his stead. Hearing the news, David dispatches messengers to convey his condolences to the new king on the death of his father. Apparently, David had been the beneficiary of the kindnesses of Nahash at an early point in his career, and he wished to express his appreciation for them through this honor. However, the advisors of Hanun perceive David’s actions as somehow diabolically motivated, suggesting that his true aim is not to honor the deceased Nahash but to position spies in Ammon for nefarious reasons. Heeding the words of his advisors, Hanun humiliates the messengers of David by sending them back with their beards half-shaved and the lower half of their garments cut off. When they return, David is disturbed to observe what has happened and allows them a waiting period so that their beards can grow back before they go home.

The people of Ammon immediately realize that their king has provoked the anger of David. Expecting to be attacked, they prepare for war, joining forces with the Arameans of Sobah, the King of Maakha and the King of Tov, for a combined force of tens of thousands of soldiers. Yoav and Avishai, the sons of Tzeruyah, were in command of the army of Israel and faced the difficulty that they were being approached by the opposing troops on two different fronts.

Yoav took upon himself to direct the elite commandos in their fight with Aram while his brother led the battle against Ammon; the kingdom of Aram was clearly the more formidable opponent. The brothers agreed to support one another if the situation deteriorated for either one of them. The Arameans fled before Yoav; seeing this, the army of Ammon abandoned the battlefield as well. King Hadadezer, ruler of the Arameans, made one more attempt to call in troops to attack the Jews, but this too failed and his top general was killed. In the aftermath of this war, the kings who served Hadadezer all made peace with Israel and the Arameans never again lent their assistance to Ammon in a military context.

It is clear that the story of David wishing to repay the kindnesses of King Nahash after his death parallels his desire to honor the memory and demonstrate appreciation for the kindnesses of his friend Yonatan by supporting his son, Mefivoshet. However, there are two almost diametrically opposed ways of reading and interpreting this story and how it fits into the flow of the narrative. One way of understanding the text is that, in sending messengers of consolation to Hanun, David was acting properly and was fully consistent with his principle of justice and compassion as described in the previous chapter.

The problem was that the advisers of Hanun viewed David’s behavior through the lens of their own corrupt culture and therefore projected wicked motives onto him. They simply could not grasp the beauty of the Jewish values that David exemplified in his conduct and thus assumed his real intentions were self-serving as their own would be. The poetic justice of the story is that their decision to humiliate the messengers of David – indicative of the norms and attitudes of their primitive and ignoble society – created the friction between the kingdoms that eventuate in further military and political gains for the people of Israel. Simply stated, David did what was right and the people Ammon did what was wrong, and this led to the “good guys” triumphing over the “bad guys”.

The Sages of the Talmud, however, adopt a different approach to the story. They see here a criticism of David for displaying compassion to the nation of Ammon, which the Torah commands us not to befriend. The ensuing war – and we will see, it will be a war with far-reaching consequences – is a kind of punishment to David for being overly gracious to a wicked nation. We can add to this that Nahash, although he had apparently been kind to David personally (the text never reveals how, we can assume he must have offered David assistance or refuge during his time on the run from Shaul), Ammon, and Nahash in particular, was a ruthless and inveterate enemy of Israel. David, now King of Israel, should have set aside his personal debt of gratitude to Nahash and considered the national and political implications of his behavior.

Indeed, the very first war of King Shaul, which gained him the accolades and support of the Jewish people, was a defensive battle waged in response to grievous threats from none other than Nahash, King of Ammon. Undoubtedly, the memory of Nahash that was etched in the collective consciousness of Israel was not a positive one, and David may have even been perceived as “canceling out” his kindness to the house of Shaul by showing brotherly consideration to Shaul’s first and most famous enemy. For David to reach out in friendship to the family of such an evil opponent of his nation was viewed by the Rabbis as a serious mistake for which he deserved to suffer significant fall-out.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 9

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 9

True to form, David wishes to honor the oath he made to both Yonatan and Shaul to preserve and protect their descendants. He seeks out any surviving member of the house of Shaul. Toward this end, he summons Tziva, who was a servant who had been given the responsibility of overseeing and managing the estate of Shaul after his death. David inquires whether there is any descendant of Shaul still living; Tziva responds that Mefivoshet, who is lame and incapable of walking, is the son of Yonatan and the sole heir of the household. Rather than living at home, Mefivoshet has been residing with another wealthy family that has been taking care of him; David summons him from there and they meet.

We can assume this was a tense encounter, since ostensibly Mefivoshet had no idea why he was being called to the palace and may have suspected that his life was in danger; in those days, a new king would often exterminate the family of his predecessor to remove any possibility of a threat to his power. However, David wishes to inform Mefivoshet that he is entitled to all of the property that belonged to his grandfather, and that he is invited to live in the palace and dine at the table of David permanently.

David instructs Tziva that he and his family should maintain the estate of Shaul, tilling the land and harvesting the produce, on behalf of Mefivoshet, but that Mefivoshet would reside with David. Tziva, whom we are told had fifteen sons and twenty servants of his own, accepts this command and departs.

This brief chapter is another example of David’s principled and selfless behavior. He fulfills his promise to Shaul and Yonatan even though he has nothing to gain, politically or personally, from these actions; if anything, they may have been seen as controversial and problematic by his advisers who were worried about fueling any resurgence of Shaul’s supporters in opposition to David. Nevertheless, David is true to his word.

The audience is somewhat wary of the character of Tziva, servant and executor of Shaul, and for good reason. When we read between the proverbial lines of the story, we gather that Tziva was given almost total control of the properties of Shaul and that he was not especially deferential to Mefivoshet, who – despite being legally entitled to much wealth – was currently dependent upon another family for room and board. Apparently, Mefivoshet was not able to stand up for himself (literally or figuratively) and protest, so Tziva took advantage of his weakness and treated the estate of Shaul as if it was his own. A typical servant does not have fifteen sons and twenty slaves; Tziva fancied himself a king and was living the lifestyle of the rich and famous at Shaul’s (or, really, Mefivoshet’s) expense.

From Tziva’s initial response to David we sense a lack of respect for and even resentment of Mefivoshet, whom he describes to David as “lame in his feet” – in other words, unworthy of your concern or favor. We can assume that David’s declaration that the estate of Shaul belongs to his rightful heir and his order to Tziva to work the land on behalf of Mefivoshet were not well received but that Tziva had no choice but to obey the voice of the king.

For Tziva, this meant relinquishing his claim to power and influence and discontinuing his comfortable life in order to support the grandson of his master whom he regarded as a pathetic inferior undeserving of such service. It will become apparent in future chapters that Tziva never quite gives up hope of an eventual return to glory; he bides his time and, when Mefivoshet is again vulnerable, will disingenuously attempt to regain his unjust foothold in Shaul’s home.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 8

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 8
This chapter returns to a description of David’s military activities as king of Israel. He goes to war against Moav and subdues them, killing two-thirds of the population and retaining the rest of the citizens as servants and tributaries. David also smites Hadadezer ben Rehov, the King of Sobah, and captures many officers, riders and horses from him; he hamstrings all of the horses except what he needed for one hundred chariots of his own.

When the Arameans come to assist the armies of Sobah, David defeats them as well, killing twenty-two thousand soldiers. David takes gold and brass from the cities of Sobah and from Aram and brings it to Jerusalem to consecrate to Hashem. Toi, King of Hamath, sends his son as a messenger to David to salute and bless him for defeating their common enemy, Haddadezer. David is presented with vessels of silver, gold and brass, which he likewise dedicates to Hashem.

Throughout all of David’s military campaigns and endeavors, Hashem protected and assisted him. David was able to acquire an international reputation for his remarkable successes, conquering much territory and establishing a governing presence in the land of Edom. He consistently dedicated all of the spoils of war that he plundered to Hashem.

The chapter concludes by mentioning that David ruled justly and charitably over all of Israel. A description is provided of the various cabinet members that he appointed and that constituted his court or government; an infrastructure is in place that can provide support and stability to the nation as a whole.

There are many details here that would warrant more lengthy discussion, such as the reason for targeting Moav or occupying the territory of Edom. For brevity’s sake, I will confine my remarks to some general observations.

This chapter represents a dramatic shift from the spiritual preoccupations of the previous chapter back to the messy details of military operations. This juxtaposition is surely deliberate. David was told in Chapter 7 that he would not be the person to build the Temple; his job was to invest his energies in subduing the enemies of Israel and consolidating his government so that his successor could construct the permanent home for the Divine Presence.

Therefore, David immediately throws himself into this important project, eliminating enemies, securing borders, and fine-tuning the particulars of his administration. The Temple can only rest upon the foundation of a peaceful and just society; when injustice and violence prevail, it cannot abide. David is working hard to create the ideal environment for the Divine Presence to dwell in Israel.

We see that even at the pinnacle of military and political success, David remains a humble and devoted servant of Hashem. He observes the Torah’s commandment that the king not accumulate excess horses, by disposing of all but what he needs for one hundred chariots. Similarly, he refrains from amassing wealth in his treasure houses, opting instead to consecrate the spoils of war to the service of God or for the sake of the future Temple. He utilizes his fame and fortune only to glorify the Almighty and serves as the agent of Hashem in establishing justice and equity in his kingdom, in fulfillment of the tradition of Abraham “that he will command his children and his household after him, to guard the way of Hashem, to do charity and justice.”

David understands that these are the principles that will ensure the continued existence of the Jewish people in the Holy Land and he governs accordingly. The fact that other “relatives” of the nation of Israel – Moav (from Lot) and Edom (from Esav) – known for their corruption and injustice, are conquered by David accentuates the point that he embodies the legacy of Avraham and is therefore entitled to the blessings that are guaranteed by it.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 7

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 7

David’s kingdom has been consolidated and achieved a considerable level of stability. Reflecting upon this development, David comments to Natan the Prophet that it is inappropriate for him to be sitting in a majestic palace of cedar while the Ark of Hashem resides in a mere tent. Understanding that David intends to build a permanent structure to house the Ark, Natan initially advises David to do as he wishes; however, that night, Natan receives a prophecy from Hashem in which he is told that David is not supposed to build a sanctuary for God.

In the lengthy Divine message, Hashem refers back to the long march of Jewish history that began with the Exodus from Egypt through the period of the Judges and finally culminated in the selection and establishment of David’s monarchy. At no time thus far has Hashem indicated a desire for a Bet Hamiqdash or Holy Temple to be constructed. Indeed, David’s son and successor on the throne will be charged with this task, but David himself has not been chosen for the project. First, Hashem will build a “house” – that is, a dynasty – for David, by providing him with an heir. Only then will the Temple be built.

The chapter concludes with David approaching Hashem (seemingly in the presence of the Ark) and offers a lengthy prayer, expressing his wonderment and gratitude at the manifold blessings with which he has been favored. Not only has David been elevated from obscurity to a position of great leadership, but he has been promised that his monarchy will endure through his descendants forever. David places his own career in the context of Hashem’s providence for His people – the unique God’s relationship with His unique nation, a people called to sanctify His name on Earth – and David prays that Hashem’s promises to him should indeed be fulfilled.

There are a couple of points to highlight in this chapter. David’s plan to build a Bet Hamiqdash is undoubtedly rooted in the Torah’s statement that, once the Jewish people have achieved security and stability in their land, a single, exclusive and permanent location would be selected for the Holy Temple forever. A temporary, mobile sanctuary is representative of a relationship with the Divine Presence that is still tentative and conditional; a full-fledged Temple edifice would symbolize that the Jewish people’s relationship with Hashem was now secure and unshakeable, once and for all.

The transition from temporary to permanent was destined to be made, but only after the political circumstances of Israel and its infrastructure had reached a level of maturity and dependability that allowed Hashem’s presence to reside among them uninterruptedly.
David legitimately assumed that the mandate of facilitating this transition fell upon his shoulders, and was enthusiastic about fulfilling it because of his abiding sense that his political power was nothing more than an instrument for the service of Hashem and the sanctification of His name. David was not alone in his assumption here; Natan the Prophet apparently shared the view that the “time had arrived” for the Temple to finally be built.

Natan, however, was quickly corrected by Hashem: David’s role would not extend to the construction of the Temple, but would be limited to the establishment of the monarchy on a secure footing. David had already been through many ups and downs, trials and tribulations to reach this point in his own development, and even more groundwork remained to be laid before it would be clear that the “House of David” was a force to be reckoned with. After all, Shaul also ruled Israel for a time, but his authority and influence essentially died with him. The proof of the reality of the Davidic dynasty would be its passage from one generation to another – its successful transfer to David’s heir. Once the stability of the regime is made clear and David’s descendant occupies his throne, the construction of the Temple will be the first action item on the royal agenda.

In Sefer Divrei Hayamim, David famously declares that he was forbidden from building the Temple because he had shed much blood during his military career. This would be consistent with the Torah’s teaching that metal tools, associated with warfare, may not be used in the fashioning of the altar. On the surface, however, this explanation seems to contradict our chapter, in which it sounds like it is the fact that David’s kingdom is still new, and not the fact that he was involved in battle, that disqualified him from constructing the sanctuary.

However, in reality, David’s reference to his military career may have been another way of conveying the same idea that Natan expressed to him in this chapter. The bottom line is that David’s primary struggle and the main focus of his energy was on confronting and destroying the enemies of Israel. His essential task has been the establishment of the Jewish government through the “dirty work” of battling those who stood in its way. This is precisely the message of our chapter: David is the warrior, the fighter and the dynasty-founder, he is not the well-established, securely positioned monarch who would be chosen to take the political and spiritual development of the nation to the next level.

The chapter ends with David reiterating the proper Torah view toward his “rejection”; Hashem is the One who assigns us our roles and our mission in life, our job is to understand what the Almighty expects of us and to devote our energies to the realization of His plan. Had the building of the Temple been about David’s own ego or glory, he might have been disappointed or disheartened by the revelation that he was banned from participating in it. However, as a true servant of Hashem (this is how the Almighty refers to him in his communication to Natan) David responds to the Divine message by expressing humble gratitude for his blessings, wholeheartedly embracing his destiny, and committing himself to taking the steps necessary to fulfill it.

Shemuel Bet Chapter 5

Due to temporary technical difficulties, the audio for this chapter will not be available until tomorrow!

Shemuel Bet Chapter 5

The entire nation of Israel approaches David in Hevron and accepts him as their king, acknowledging him as the divinely appointed monarch. The elders of Israel make a covenant with David and anoint him as their ruler. David then lays siege to Jerusalem, which was still in the hands of the Yevusim (Jebusites) and had never been conquered by Jewish forces. He offers an incentive to the soldier who is first to capture the “tzinor”, variously translated as waterway or as tower (the book of Divre Hayamim explains that the incentive was the opportunity to be the general of the army of Israel, and that Yoav was the winner.)

David makes reference to the importance of removing the “blind and the lame” when penetrating the city; apparently the “blind and the lame” is an allusion to some form of deterrent that obstructed Jewish entry into Jerusalem. The city quickly falls to David’s forces, he builds a fortress there, and he establishes Jerusalem as his new capital. Divine providence is manifest in all that David does. Hiram, King of Tzor, sends craftsmen to Israel to construct a palace for David.

The chapter proceeds to tell us that David perceived these events as evidence that Hashem had intervened in his life in such a miraculous manner because of the merit of the Jewish people. He married additional wives and concubines and had several more children after arriving in Jerusalem from Hevron.

When the Pelishtim discover that the Jews have selected David as their new king, they prepare for battle against him. David inquires of Hashem and is told to attack them; he is assured of victory. David triumphs over the Pelishtim in the first skirmish and his men collect the abandoned idols of their adversaries and destroy them. The Pelishtim regroup and threaten the Jewish forces again; David once again communicates with Hashem and is told to stage a surprise attack on the Phillistine army from behind them rather than confronting them head-on. When the soldiers hear a sound like marching on the tree tops, that will be their signal to descend upon the Pelishtim. David adheres to the instructions of Hashem and is victorious on the battlefield.

David’s decision to relocate his capital from Hevron to Yerushalayim is easily understood. Although Hevron had a rich history dating back to the era of the Patriarchs, it was specifically associated with the tribe of Yehuda. Keeping the capital city in Hevron might have been interpreted as meaning that the King David, who hailed from the tribe of Yehuda, was placing his own extended family ahead of everyone else. It might have been seen as perpetuating a tribal feud between Yehuda and Binyamin, the tribe of Shaul. By selecting Jerusalem, which actually straddles the territory of Yehuda and Binyamin, David demonstrates his intent to rise above the differences that divide the political factions in Israel from one another. His monarchy will be for all Jews – the tribe of Yehuda and the tribe of Binyamin, and, by extension, all twelve tribes of Israel.

The references to the “blind and the lame” are quite vague and mysterious and pose one of the greatest challenges to students of the Bible. Countless interpretations have been offered for the meaning of this phrase in the context of the battle for Jerusalem. The Midrash states that the Jebusites placed a statute of a blind man (representing Yitzchaq) and one of a lame man (representing Yaaqov) with an engraved reminder of the promise Avraham made to Avimelekh not to harm his immediate descendants. David’s argument was that this agreement had already expired and could therefore now be ignored.

Another intriguing interpretation is that the Yevusim trusted the strength of their walls so much, they placed blind and lame men on the wall or at the gates as if to mockingly declare, “our city is so well fortified, we can rely upon blind and lame guards to defend it.” Still another explanation argues that the tradition among ancient Canaanites was to bring actual blind or lame men to the battle and then to pronounce a curse that anyone who attacked the city would be stricken with lameness or blindness. These are just a few of the myriad approaches to these verses; I highly recommend exploring the commentaries and how they deal with these phrases in truly creative ways.

As with several enigmatic passages in the Bible, we may never know exactly what the terms “lame and blind” referred to in their original context; all we know is that a reader of these words at the time they were recorded would presumably have understood their meaning. What we can infer is that there was some obstruction – symbolic, spiritual, physical or emotional – that the Jewish army had to overcome if it was going to capture the city of Jerusalem from the Yevusim. David encourages them in this quest and is surely gratified when Yoav achieves distinction through his courageous deeds.

As predicted by the Torah, the success and blessing of the Jewish nation would lead to the admiration and support of nations across the globe. Hence, we see the King of Tzor constructing a palace for David, who recognizes this as a fulfillment of Divine promise. David busies himself with growing his family, having many children so that his divinely sanctioned monarchy will one day be inherited by a proper successor. At the same time, however, the advancement of the people of Israel can incite and attract the hatred and animosity of the gentiles, as we see in the response of the Pelishtim to David’s exceptional leadership ability – rather than acknowledge or praise him, they plan an attack against him right away.

The description of the two conflicts with the Pelishtim is noteworthy because of David’s repeated inquiry with Hashem to clarify the proper course of action. Even in the heat of battle or when the situation appears dire and urgent, David does not enter into the theater of war without first seeking the Divine word to guide him. In this case, as in others, David observes the commands of Hashem on the battlefield and therefore vanquishes his enemies with relative ease.

David is always cognizant of the fact that the providential care he experiences is a function of the merits of the Jewish nation, not his individual, personal excellence. He therefore devotes the resources and talents with which he has been blessed to the service of Hashem and of the greater good. He is a genuine leader of the people who is fully committed to placing their needs, interests and importance above his own.


Shemuel Bet Chapter 4

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Bet Chapter 4

Two officers of Ish Boshet (called merely “the son of Shaul”) named Rekhav and Baanah plot to assassinate him. They manage to gain entry into his house, either disguised as wheat merchants or together with some wheat merchants who had come to call. While he is enjoying his afternoon nap, Rekhav and Baanah kill Ish Boshet, decapitate him and escape undetected.

They bring his severed head to David and present it to him, declaring that his rival has been eliminated once and for all. David swears by God that he will deal with this news in what he deems to be the appropriate manner. He compares this situation to the circumstances recounted in Chapter One wherein the Amaleqite boy brought him tidings of Shaul’s demise, hoping to receive reward. There, David ordered the lad executed for confessing to the crime of having killed the anointed one of Hashem.

How much more so, David reasoned, when two men have clearly murdered an innocent man on his bed in the middle of the day – hoping, ostensibly, to be rewarded – should they be deserving of death. David instructs his officers to kill Rekhav and Baanah; he has their hands and feet cut off and hung by the pool in Hevron, while Ish Boshet’s head is buried in the grave of Avner ben Ner.

No explicit motive is ascribed to the act of Rekhav and Baanah. In context, it seems reasonable to assume that they were disenchanted with the ineffective leadership of Ish Boshet and that the last straw was the defection and subsequent death of Avner ben Ner. Realizing their only hope for a bright future was through an affiliation with David’s regime and hoping to accelerate the process of his ascension to power, Rekhav and Baanah probably felt that they were doing a great act of heroism and national service (as well as securing themselves employment) in assassinating Ish Boshet.

Nevertheless, David remains true to form, having only words of condemnation and punishment for those who commit unjust actions on his behalf. Without hesitation, he has the perpetrators of the crime killed. This once again emphasizes his commitment to justice and fairness and his rejection of the kind of partisan politics and cronyism that tainted Shaul’s government. Hanging the hands and feet of the criminals for display sends a message of zero tolerance for violent and unethical behavior, particularly when it appears to serve political ends and can therefore be misinterpreted as a form of state-sponsored terrorism. The measures taken by David clarified the fact that he neither ordered nor endorsed the murder of his rival to advance his own agenda, and that he considers such behavior morally reprehensible and a contradiction to all he stands for.

Burying Ish Boshet’s head in the grave of Avner was an unusual course of action and requires some explanation. While Avner’s final wish was indeed to be associated with the kingdom of David that was based in Hevron, one might have expected that Ish Boshet would want his remains to be laid to rest in Mahanayim or somewhere else within the boundaries of Binyamin. Perhaps David felt that, in his heart of hearts – or in his brain! – Ish Boshet acknowledged David’s right to the monarchy and knew that the future was with the Davidic dynasty. Ish Boshet’s willingness to allow David to take Mikhal back suggested that he was himself conflicted about the role he had been chosen to play, a role that forced him to stand in inevitably failing opposition to David. Here we find evidence of the great sensitivity of David and his giving credit to Ish Boshet for good intentions even though they remained unspoken.