Reading of Shabbat 56a : David's Sin (or lack thereof)

This is the fruit of preparation for a shiur that I'll be delivering in the middle of the night tomorrow. I don't expect much of an alert audience then, so i'll post it here, in the hopes that there will be a wider audience.

Note: This isn NOT an attempt to come to grips with the episode of David and Batsheva. It's an attempt to understand that episode as it's understood in one Talmudic passage.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף נו עמוד א

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל האומר דוד חטא - אינו אלא טועה, שנאמר +שמואל א' יח+ ויהי דוד לכל דרכיו משכיל וה' עמו וגו', אפשר חטא בא לידו ושכינה עמו? אלא מה אני מקיים +שמואל ב' יב+ מדוע בזית את דבר ה' לעשות הרע - שביקש לעשות ולא עשה. אמר רב: רבי דאתי מדוד מהפך ודריש בזכותיה דדוד; מדוע בזית את דבר ה' לעשות הרע רבי אומר: משונה רעה זו מכל רעות שבתורה, שכל רעות שבתורה כתיב בהו ויעש וכאן כתיב לעשות - שביקש לעשות ולא עשה. +שמואל ב' יב+ את אוריה החתי הכית בחרב - שהיה לך לדונו בסנהדרין ולא דנת. ואת אשתו לקחת לך לאשה - ליקוחין יש לך בה. דאמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל היוצא למלחמת בית דוד כותב גט כריתות לאשתו, שנאמר +שמואל א' יז+ ואת עשרת חריצי החלב האלה תביא לשר האלף ואת אחיך תפקד לשלום ואת ערבתם תקח. מאי ערבתם? תני רב יוסף: דברים המעורבים בינו לבינה. +שמואל ב' יב+ ואתו הרגת בחרב בני עמון, מה חרב בני עמון אי אתה נענש עליו - אף אוריה החתי אי אתה נענש עליו. מאי טעמא - מורד במלכות הוה, דאמר ליה +שמואל ב' יא+ ואדני יואב ועבדי אדני על פני השדה חנים. אמר רב: כי מעיינת ביה בדוד לא משכחת ביה בר מדאוריה, דכתיב +מלכים א' טו+ רק בדבר אוריה החתי

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: Whoever says that David sinned is merely erring, for it is said, And David behaved himself wisely in all his ways: and the Lord was with him.9 Is it possible that sin came to his hand, yet the Divine Presence was with him? Then how do I interpret, Wherefore hast thou despised the word of the Lord, to do that which is evil in his sight?10 He wished to do [evil], but did not. Rab observed: Rabbi, who is descended from David, seeks to defend him, and expounds [the verse] in David's favour. [Thus:] The 'evil' [mentioned] here is unlike every other 'evil' [mentioned] elsewhere in the Torah. For of every other evil [mentioned] in the Torah it is written, 'and he did,' whereas here it is written, 'to do': [this means] that he desired to do, but did not. Thou hast smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword:11 thou shouldst have had him tried by the Sanhedrin,12 but didst not. And hast taken his wife to be thy wife: thou hast marriage rights in her.13 For R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: Every one who went out in the wars of the house of David wrote a bill of divorcement for his wife, for it is said, and bring these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge ['arubatham].14 What is meant by 'arubatham? R. Joseph learned: The things which pledge man and woman [to one another].15 And thou hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon:11 just as thou art not [to be] punished for the sword of the Ammonites, so art thou not [to be] punished for [the death of] Uriah the Hittite. What is the reason? He was rebellious against royal authority, saying to him, and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open field [etc].16

Rab said: When you examine [the life of] David, you find nought but 'save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.'17

  • This passage never suggests - never intends to suggest - that Daivd didn't do anything wrong. It acknowledges that he did, but takes the position that he did not commit any 'mortal' sin (to borrow from our neighbors). That explanation extends to all of the examples in the broader Talmudic section (ayen sham, ve-acamo"l).
  • The opening discussion seems to revolve around the value of self-control in leadership. The true leader is one who can exhibit control; if David is experiencing success, if he’s a great leader, then it’s not possible that he can’t control himself. If you want to control others, you must be able to control yourself. That doesn’t mean there’s no ‘heart of darkness’ – getting to that type of purity of spirit is desirable, harboring secret desires is a flaw, but not a ‘fatal’ flaw. We all have them, and we all need to work them out; this is a struggle that faces any public figure. The ultimate goal is to sublimate, not repress those urges, and for that perhaps David deserves some criticism.
  • Regarding Rabi's 'forced reading' of David's legacy - it's crucial to understand that legacies aren’t about ‘history’; they’re about ‘memory’. It’s impossible to know what happened, but it’s possible to generate a plausible and honest reconstruction. There are constraints within which that can work, and personal or national ‘narratives’ are very prominent amongst those. R’ Yehuda HaNasi, a descendant of David and himself the Jewish leader of his generation, addresses the historical, objective record, but with an ‘agenda’. He’s not consciously or dishonestly choosing to whitewash David. It’s a natural defense mechanism which itself will interpret the world around it accordingly. This is par for the course – EVERYONE does it. Moreover, RYH yet acknowledges the basic HUMANITY of David – he struggles internally.
  • David should have judged Uriyah by trial, rather than outside the court system. Here, David’s failure is not in the execution, but in the method. The benefit of power is that you don’t have to wield it. Speak softly, but carry a big stick – you don’t have to use the big stick unless those who you’re dealing with are really unruly. Trust and value justice. That’ll go much further to consolidating the monarchy than repression. Here, David chooses to go straight to the big stick. Why? Did he not trust the justice system? Was he insecure in his own power? Can we suggest that he wasn’t really sure of himself and didn’t want to risk finding out?
  • You have married this woman – truly married, for she had been divorced. It mitigates David's sin by maintaining that all of David's soldiers conditionally divorced their wives before going into battle. The irony is harsh - Judaism doesn’t glorify war. It acknowledges its solemnity, comes to grips with its reality. In this instance, David exploits this element of Jewish military culture legally, but dubiously. An aspect of the greatness of Israel, here, is exploited to take another man’s wife.
  • Regarding the equation of the sword of the Ammonites with David, R’ Kook suggests the following: Ammon was a very proud people. Very close-knit, and paranoid of anything which seeks to undermine or weaken their tribe (which all derives from their incestuous origins). David, here, must employ a similar sensibility; he must work to shore up the integrity of the burgeoning monarchy. He can’t afford to let anyone or anything undermine his power. Just as David has no control over Ammon, so, too he has no control over the decision to kill Uriyah. If you've seen 'Anna and the King', the trial and execution of the King's youngest wife has some interesting parallels.
  • Rebellion - Uriyah places Yoav before David - There’s a danger in any society of the military counterculture. We’re seeing this today in Iraq – the army of the US can only be successful in its endeavor to spread American values if its military itself represents those values. The President must be Commander-in-Chief. David’s monarchy isn’t about power, but about building the ideal Jewish nation/society/culture. If the army threatens to leave his control, it threatens his entire endeavor.
  • Rav – takes a different approach. Rather than whitewash the sin, look at the whole personality. There’s always a general purpose, a pattern, and there are anomalies. True, the Uriyah episode wasn’t so praiseworthy, but in a 70 year lifespan, that’s all there is! Look at it in context!
Chag Sameach.

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