By this time, even the staunchest fan of Pesach finds that the matzah does not melt in his mouth, and the never-ending diet of soup-chicken-and-matzah-balls, once ethnically enticing, has grown cloying and stale.
“Fear not,” whispers the yetzer ha-ra, the never-tiring Evil Inclination, “the end is near, and you will, once again, be able to gorge on pizza, popcorn, and other chametzdik treats.”
Still, there yet remain two final days of yuntef/holiday (only one in Israel, due to the vagaries of the Diaspora calendar), and the final one, this year, is Shabbat.
I have chosen to focus on the haftorah for the 7th Day of Pesach, the stirring warrior’s triumph-song attributed to David (II Samuel 22:1-51), which is found in the Book of Psalms as Psalm 18, though with emendations. Of all the tales and adventures in the David Saga, it is the only complete narrative which may be accurately dated to the king’s era itself, the 10th Century BCE.
As a rabbi and teacher of literature, I consider it a signal privilege and pleasure to lead a group of Adult Learners in a close reading of the David Epic (I & II Samuel), as I have done many times in the past. We learn that David’s political and personal dealings in affairs of the 10th Century BCE Israelite state often bordered on the questionable, and that he and his family paid the price in both blood and treasure. At different stages in his life, David was a seducer to Bat-Sheva (among many other women), a cuckolder and murderer of the hapless Good Soldier, Uriah the Hittite; he suffered coups d’etat actual and attempted by beloved sons Absalom and Adonijah, palace intrigues by trusted counselors such as his personal bagman and assassin, General Joab, and double-dealing by his closest military officers. Yet, with God’s help, David survived them all. His story is a heady mix of faith, skullduggery, and realpolitik unmatched in world literature. This poem bears it out as nothing else can do.
The theme is relatively simple and common for Hebrew Scripture; indeed, it describes a dilemma in which most, if not all, believing Jews have found themselves at one point or other throughout their lives: in dire peril, either bodily or spiritual.
“For the waves of death beset me,/ The underworld’s torrents dismayed me,/ The snares of hell coiled round me,/ The traps of death sprang against me” (ll. 5-7; I am using Robert Alter’s translation in his The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel [NY: W.W. Norton, 1999]).
Here is Doom, both actual and metaphorical: we feel the agony and grief of the young David, recalling his forced exile in the wilderness, fleeing the rage of the maddened, bipolar, and paranoid King Saul.
“In my straits I called to the Lord,/ To my God I called/…The earth heaved and quaked,/ They heaved, for He was angered,/ Smoke went up from His nostrils,/ Consuming fire from His mouth….” (ll. 7-9)
Though the imagery reminds us of Baal, the thunder-god of the pagan Ugaritic epic which prefigured our Ethical, Monotheistic faith, we need not fear that David was being idolatrous. Just as John Milton, a devout (if unconventional) Christian, used pagan metaphors drawn from Greek and Latin poetry, so did David employ the literature of Israel’s neighbors for holy use.
“The Lord dealt with me by my merit,/By the cleanness of my hands, requited me./For I kept the ways of the Lord,/ I did no evil before my God.” (ll. 21-23).
Here is David, standing naked and alone before his God: politician, soldier-statesman, lover, intriguer; but, in the end, a Jew, a human being, to be measured by his words, his thoughts, his deeds. Was he a tsadik, a righteous man, a stam Yid, an ordinary Jew, or—dare we say—a mensch, a perfected human being? Only God can decide.