David's Song

April 27, 2019

 

When Bruce invited me to give the Dvar Torah today, I was a bit dismayed because by the seventh day, I must admit I’m a little sick of Pesach. So I decided to look at the Haftarah to see what the Prophets have to say that our sages have connected with Pesach.  You may have noticed in the Stone chumash, the note that says this 22nd chapter of Shmuel II is almost identical to Psalm 18.  It is referred to as “The Song of David,” and is one of the very few chapters in Tanach that is recorded in two different places, plus, we read it twice as a Haftarah: on Shabbat Haazinu as well as today. The 15th century commentator Abarbanel suggests that the young David wrote this Psalm as we read it today in Shmuel, as his own “soaring song of gratitude” to God for His goodness and salvation.  He wrote it in his youth, when he was deeply enmeshed in the travails of his life, intending it to be used throughout his life to thank God every time he had a close call (which is many times, as we know).  Later in his life, King David wished to generalize his personal or private song of gratitude and make it applicable to everyone who experienced God’s grace, and so he amended it as it appears in Tehillim, which could be called the public rendering of his song.  So in Abarbanel’s opinion, a young David wrote the version we have in Samuel today, and an older and more universalist-minded King David wrote the version in Tehillim.

Rashi has a different idea.  You know, the famous question that rebbes traditionally ask their students when studying tanach, is “What’s bothering Rashi”?  In other words, what doesn’t make sense in the text that makes Rashi feel the need to explain it?  I think “what’s bothering Rashi” about this chapter of Samuel is that it is too glib, too self-assured, to overly confident to be real.  A young King David would never know that God would consistently protect him, would come out in the end as his life-long savior. So rather than a song of gratitude, it is more of an example of wishful thinking.

Now Rashi lived almost 400 years before Abarbanel, but the beauty of Torah commentary is that these two non-contemporaries can still argue!  Rashi believes that King David wrote this song at the end of his life, referring retrospectively back to the trials and tribulations he already had survived, and thanking God for salvation.  Rashi suggests that only at the end of his life did David feel truly and finally victorious over all his pursuers. In the very first line of the song, David singles out Saul as the enemy from whose hand God delivered David: This is an example of the very specific and personal nature of the song, of David’s gratitude for being personally delivered from a very personal danger.  After that personal beginning, the rest of the song can be interpreted as both specific to King David, and at the same time, more universal in nature. 

Abarbanel divides this song into 4 sections.  The initial few verses are about God as man’s protector: “God is my Rock (Sela) my fortress, my Rescuer.  God is my Rock (Tzur), my Shelter, my Shield, My Stronghold, my Refuge”.

The next fifteen verses specify how God saved David from his enemies, listing many of the troubles David would encounter in his life: frightened by the torrents of godless men, surrounded by the pains of the grave and the snares of death. 

The next 18 verses show how, in a sort of “Dayenu” style, God not only delivered David from misfortune, but also allowed him to be victorious over his enemies: “God was a support to me, He brought me out, released me, desired me, repaid me in accordance with my righteousness”. “My enemies you gave to me in retreat and I cut them down” (David is always a warrior, even when he is writing poetry).  

And the final section, to the end of the chapter, praises God: “Blessed is my Rock, Exalted is God”. “To Your name I will sing, for God does kindness to his anointed one, to David and his offspring forever”. 

The commentators disagree about what David’s song actually means.  This makes sense, as David was such a complex personality.  My first thought was, how disingenuous was David, to refer in such a boastful way to his own righteousness!  We know that David did many things for which he was punished: starting with his stealing Batsheva away from Uriah, including his temper and his tendency to exact vengeance, his cruel and humiliating retort to his wife Michal after she rebukes him, and his poor parenting which leads to his son Avshalom trying to usurp David’s throne.  Even on his deathbed, David urges his son and successor Solomon to take bloody vengeance on David’s enemies. There is no humility here: we do not get a sense about King David like we do about Moshe or Avraham that they “walk humbly in God’s ways.”  Even King Saul, who angered God by allowing Amalek to live and lost the kingship as a result, committed his sins with a sort of good intention or naiveté: we don’t get the impression that Saul was a man with too big of an ego, rather that he was flawed as a chosen leader, that the job was too big for him.

Not so with King David!  His ego was strong and out in front. The medieval commentator Ralbag suggests that the descriptions of violent natural phenomena in verses 16-17, which seem to refer to an earthquake and a tidal wave, actually are meant by King David to refer to his own miraculous political and military victories, which were unexpected and therefore call for elaborate praise of God.  These include Saul and Jonathan falling in battle, thus clearing the way for David to assume the throne; and the powerful General Avner unexpectedly abandoning Ish-Boshet and instead throwing his support to David.  Once again, the song can refer to David’s personal salvation and victories, OR it can be a more general metaphor for anyone whose faith in God enables him or her to withstand a perilous situation.

In the final section of the chapter, David praises God extravagantly for all his deliverance from the many threats he WILL face in his life, if you prefer the Abarbanel theory of a young David writing this song in anticipation of all his future troubles, OR else David is thanking God for the deliverance from the many threats he HAS ALREADY faced, according to Rashi’s theory that David is writing more historically at the end of his life.  In either case, these verses of praise and gratitude seem very specific to King David.  Certainly, over the 2,000 years of exile these praises seem distant from any universal Jewish experience that we can imagine: in the song, nations are subdued beneath David; he is raised above his adversaries, he is served by so many nations that he doesn’t even know them all.  Foreigners fear him and lie to him to avoid his wrath: it seems he is the one with the power, if he is surrounded by sycophants.  As Jews living many centuries after the destruction of the Jewish monarchy, we can hardly even imagine the power that this song invests in a Jewish king. 

And just as we can hardly imagine it, I think David is only imagining it. It seems to me that these gifts David feels God has showered upon him point to the wishful thinking of a younger man, as put forth by Abarbanel.  The King David who is at the end of his life, knows the bittersweet nature of power and the throne.  He knows that his own house is in serious disarray, with brother killing brother, brother raping sister, son plotting against father.  He struggles to control his succession plan, only ensuring the throne to Solomon after Nathan the Prophet conspires with BatSheva to make it happen.  I don’t believe an older and wiser David would have gloriously praised God in this naïve way, implying that life is a bowl of cherries, that all victories are his, that God made it all a happy ending.  It sounds to me like wishful thinking, like the rather immature or at least inexperienced hope of a younger man, who foresees the outcome of his life in heroic and glorious terms. Although boastful, it does give credit to God for all the victory and glory that it foresees.

However, a more experienced King David, who has suffered great pain and loss, would know that life doesn’t all turn out that way.  The fact that he praises God regardless, if Rashi is right and he wrote this song of praise when he had the whole story behind him, is very much to King David’s credit. To revise his personal history, to reshape the telling of the events of his life in order to praise God for the successes and never mind the failures, is an exercise in positive thinking and gratitude that is praiseworthy indeed.

And what about Pesach?  Why did the Rabbis assign this particular haftarah to the seventh day of this chag?  I would say that the answer lies in the final section of the Song of David, with its intense focus on praise, which is in keeping with the ending of the hagaddah.  We praise God in the Hagaddah with Hallel, as we did today during shacharit.  Like King David, we revise and re-shape every disaster and tragedy and put it into the form of gratitude for God’s intervention and salvation, which have led us to this day.  And, we might even say that, on this, the seventh day of a seemingly endless week of matza, we appreciate the positive thinking and praise of King David as he looks only on the bright side and thanks God for all that he has been given.  Whether the Song of David was written by a young David or an old one, whether he is merely hoping for a good life or is actually grateful for what he has been given, it is a good model for us all.

Chag Sameach!

 

 

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