Does Hunger Run in Your Family?
By: Morris M. Mizrahi
Tradition teaches that King David, founder of the great monarchical dynasty from which Mashiah will descend, passed away on the holiday of Shavuot. As we prepare for this festival later this month, it is most appropriate to reinforce our appreciation of this legendary spiritual hero, one of the greatest figures in our nation’s history, and learn from his personal example of faithfulness and commitment to Gd.
Warrior or Scholar
The sections in Tanach dealing with King David’s life describe him mainly as a warrior and monarch who secured the nation’s borders after decades of unrest and instability. However, the sages of the Talmud recount that David was also a towering Torah scholar unparalleled in his passionate commitment to learning.
The Gemara (Berachot 3b) relates that King David devoted the majority of his night to Torah learning, and slept no more than “sixty horse breaths” every night. David’s harp was kept near the window of his palace bedroom, and at midnight, the wind would blow through the strings of the harp, whereupon David would arise and immerse himself in Torah study until morning. Later (ibid. 4a), the Gemara cites David as exclaiming before Gd, “Master of the World! Am I not pious? For all the kings of the east and west sit in groups in great honor, while my hands are soiled from blood…” Whereas other kings spent their days indulging in physical delights and advancing their own honor and prestige, David spent his time in the seemingly unglamorous task of examining blood to decipher the Jewish laws of family purity. Ordinary monarchs are decadent and pretentious, but David was an accomplished scholar who was regularly called upon to delve into and resolve intricate halachic questions.
David’s love for learning was so strong that he was instinctively drawn to the study halls: “David said: Master of the World! Each and every day, I would calculate and say, ‘I will go to such-and-such place’ or ‘to such-and-such residence,’ but my legs would then bring me to the synagogues and study halls” (Midrash Rabba, Parashat Behukotai). Even when David made a cognitive decision to engage in other activities, his legs carried him to the halls of prayer and learning, testifying to the depth of his commitment and passion for Torah.
This passionate devotion continued until King David’s very last moments of life. The Gemara (Shabbat 30a) tells that David was prophetically informed that he would die on Shabbat. David understood that as long as he immersed himself in Torah learning, the Angel of Death could not overpower him. He therefore spent the entire Shabbat, from beginning to end, each week, engrossed in uninterrupted study. The Angel of Death made numerous attempts to disrupt David’s learning so it could fulfill its mission and seize the king’s soul, but to no avail. Finally, the angel rustled the trees outside the palace, arousing David’s curiosity. David headed toward the garden to see the source of the mysterious noise, concentrating intently on his studies even as he walked. On his way down the stairs, however, he tripped, momentarily distracting him from his Torah thoughts. The Angel of Death seized the opportunity and snatched the great king’s soul during that brief moment of distraction.
David thus provides an inspiring model of dedication and diligence, borne out of a keen sense of the value and importance of learning. Once we recognize just how significant and powerful our Torah learning is, we will naturally approach it with the seriousness and intensity it deserves.
Praising Gd in Times of Distress
Another of David Hamelech’s remarkable qualities was his ability to give praise and express gratitude to Hashem even in times of hardship. When we read the stories of King David’s life, we are struck by the grueling crises he endured. After becoming a military hero in the army of King Shaul, David was forced to flee from the king, who saw him as a traitor and pursued him relentlessly. Despite having been anointed by the prophet Shemuel as king, David was forced to spend several years on the run, living in caves and in constant fear of Shaul and his men.
After finally ascending to the throne, David was forced to wage fierce battles against Israel’s enemies, from the Philistines along the Mediterranean coast to the Moabites and Edomites to the east, and the Arameans to the north. He was also beset by personal tragedy, as his son Avshalom killed another son, Amnon. And David suffered the pain and humiliation of having to flee from his own son, when Avshalom led a violent revolt against him in an attempt to usurp the throne, a campaign that ultimately resulted in Avshalom’s gruesome death.
Yet, throughout these ordeals, David retained his faith and composure, and continued giving praise to Gd. The Gemara (Berachot 7b) detects this quality from David’s prayer which he recited when fleeing from Avshalom. He introduces this prayer with the words “Mizmor leDavid– A song of David.” As the Gemara notes, the word “mizmor” seems inappropriate for a prayer recited during a time of personal crisis, when fleeing from one’s own son. The Gemara explains that, indeed, David sang this prayer with a sense of joy and relief. The prophet had previously informed him that he would be punished for his sin with Batsheva, and David feared that he might be pursued by somebody who would show no compassion. When he realized that this punishment took the form of a revolt by his son, he felt relieved, confident that the damage would be limited.
Even in life’s darkest hour, King David was able to sing, to give praise to the Almighty, to find the “silver lining” that gave him reason to rejoice. We, who so often complain about our petty hardships and challenges, have much to learn from King David. With just a bit of effort, we, too, are capable of “singing” and rejoicing even in the face of adversity. If we look carefully around us, we will find reasons to be joyful and appreciative regardless of the difficulties we confront.
Withstanding Peer Pressure
“Evildoers have mocked me relentlessly, yet I have not turned away from Your Torah” (Tehillim 119:51). David in this verse speaks of his tenacity in the face of scorn and opposition, how the ridicule of his detractors failed to weaken his devotion to Torah. Most of us easily buckle under the weight of peer pressure, when we are subjected to contempt and mockery by those who reject our religious beliefs and practices. David, however, was undeterred by the cynics of his time. No matter how relentlessly they jeered his commitment to Torah, he remained steadfastly devoted to Gd’s teachings.
This quality is also expressed in the story told in the Book of Shemuel II (6) about the celebration of the holy ark’s arrival in Jerusalem. David personally led the festivities, dancing with intense enthusiasm and rigor. His wife, Michal, saw David dancing from the palace window, and later criticized her husband for his conduct. She thought it was unbecoming of the king, and beneath his royal honor, to sing and dance in full view of the people. Such conduct, she said, would undermine David’s honor and stature and subject him to ridicule. David, however, insisted that he acted properly. He paid no heed to what the people would think. His concern was for the honor of Gd, not his own honor. He was prepared to endure the mockery of the nation’s cynics for the sake of giving respect to Gd. Pleasing Gd at times comes at the expense of displeasing other people, and King David shows us how our commitment to Gd must remain firm even when it meets the disapproval and contempt of those around us.
Tehillim – A Prayer for Every Occasion
One of King David’s greatest legacies is the Book of Tehillim, the vast majority of which he composed. The stirring poems and prayers of Tehillim have been recited and studied for millennia by Jews of all backgrounds and levels of observance. The Midrash (Midrash Tehillim, 1) tells of David’s prayer that the poems of Tehillim would be studied and recited in the synagogues and study halls throughout the ages. David’s prayer was indeed fulfilled, and to the greatest extent imaginable. A sizable portion of our prayer services is comprised of verses and whole chapters of Tehillim, and Jews throughout the world follow a daily regimen of Tehillim recitation. Additionally, communities across the globe have special groups that meet regularly for the specific purpose of reading Tehillim. Countless commentaries have been written on Tehillim, and, of course, Tehillim has always been the Jews’ recourse during times of personal or national crisis. Stories abound of ill patients who were cured and calamities that were averted through the merit of reciting Tehillim. Appropriately, there is a widespread practice to recite the entire Book of Tehillim on the holiday of Shavuot, the yahrtzeit of King David.
What makes Tehillim so unique is the full range of emotions expressed within its sacred text. When we read Tehillim, we find desperate prayers for salvation from life-threatening situations, as well as exuberant songs of joy and praise of Gd. Included in this book are prayers for the downfall of enemies, and expressions of wonder over the natural world; desperate pleas for help, and festive celebration of the Almighty’s handiwork. Tehillim also contains David’s philosophical musings, his contemplation of Gd, Torah, and life. Within this text, one can find an eloquent prayer for any occasion, for times of crisis and salvation, anxiety and festivity, sorrow and glee. It thus underscores how a Jew must include the Almighty at every station and in every circumstance in life, turning to Him in periods of distress, thanking Him in times of celebration, and contemplating His greatness at all times.
David Hamelech was truly one of the greatest figures in Jewish history. He sets for us an inspiring example of diligence in Torah study, fervent prayer, and ironclad faith and optimism in the face of adversity. In a day and age when people look to athletes, actors and politicians as their heroes, it behooves us to study about our own “heroes,” the spiritual giants that form the foundation of our Torah tradition. And we have no greater hero than David Hamelech, the progenitor of Mashiah, the bastion of faith, prayer and Torah, and the eternal symbol of humble, pious leadership.