Thursday, April 20, 2006

Shmini (Haftarah)

“For the cattle stumbled”

This week’s Torah portion involves an odd mixture of joy and tragedy: the rejoicing in the erection of the Sanctuary in the desert, coupled with the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu,. The haftarah chosen for this portion, or at least its opening incident, involves a similar juxtaposition of these two emotions, in the incident known as “the breach of Uzzah” (Peretz be-Uzza). In the Ashkenazic liturgy, the haftarah is quite a lengthy one—2 Samuel 5:1-6:17, consisting of three distinct incidents or scenes, each one deserving of comment in its own right. The other nushaot or rites “drop out” along the way, each one reading a different, shorter selection from these passages. Thus, the Sephardim read 2 Samuel 5:1-19, some adding 6:16-17 at the end; while the Italians and Yemenites continue as far as 7:3.

Scene One: Following its recovery from the Philistines (1 Sam 5 - 6; 7:1-2), even before the reign of Saul, the ark of the covenant had been kept at the home of a man named Avinadav in Kiryat Yearim; now that David had consolidated his reign, he and the people with him set out to bring the ark, the living symbol of the Divine Presence in Israel, up to Jerusalem. The ark is placed on an ox-drawn wagon; on the way, there is a joyous procession, complete with a small band playing a variety of musical instruments (2 Sam 6:3-5). Suddenly, on one of the steep mountain roads in the Judaean hills, one of the oxen stumbles, and a man named Uzza instinctively puts out his hand to prevent this holiest of objects from slipping. Immediately, “God’s anger is kindled against Uzza” (v. 7) and he is struck dead, then and there. David, frightened by the danger of such close proximity to the ark, decides, rather than bringing it up to Jerusalem, to leave it at the home of Oved-edom the Gittite (vv. 9-11) whom, we are told, is blessed by its presence there (v. 12).

How are we to understand this? It seems clear that the ark is seen, not merely as a symbol, but as the literal repository of the Divine presence; nay, the dwelling place of the Lord God of Israel Himself. We are dealing here with what scholars of religion call the numinous: a combination of awe-inspiring power and mystery, indicating the presence of the Divinity; what Rudolph Otto called “the Wholly Other,” involving strong elements of the strange, the uncanny, even the weird, as well as the dangerous. The holy is too overwhelming for mortal men to approach safely (this is the simple sense of “no man shall see me and live”). What is disturbing to us, steeped in generations of talk about “ethical monotheism” as being the very heart of Judaism, is that the Divine is perceived here as utterly amoral; it does not discriminate between good men and bad, nor is it concerned at all with intentions, “zapping” a hapless individual who was only trying to protect the dignity of the ark (but see Sotah 35a for another view of the Sages). One who violates the boundaries of the holy is subject to instant death, period (compare the destructive force emanating from the ark in 1 Sam 5-6, mentioned earlier). This is reminiscent of the view of an oath or curse as something with a life of its own, as in the case of Jonathan, who would have been put to death for eating the honey combs even though he did not know about the fast imposed by Saul (1 Sam 14:26-30; 43-45).

The coupling of this passage as haftarah with Leviticus 10 invites comparison with the incident involving Nadav and Avihu. But while that story may, albeit with difficulty, be explained in terms of ethical categories—indeed, the Sages and the classical medieval commentators offer a variety of solutions (see HY I: Shemini)—here we seem to be dealing with the pure numinosity of the divine. As such, the story is very, very difficult. Perhaps the solution, for us, requires a serious rethinking of that aspect of the divine which is indeed amoral, and is purely mysterious, uncanny, and numinous.

Scene Two: Three months later David decides to bring the ark up to Jerusalem. Again there is ecstatic rejoicing, animal sacrifices every few steps, with David himself leading the procession, “dancing before the Lord with all his might” (v. 14), leaping, hopping, clapping and, at the end, distributing to the people various delicacies—breads, raisin cakes, perhaps a certain cut of meat (v. 19; perhaps this was the first “big Kiddush” in history). This passage is taken by various halakhic texts as the very model of simha shel mitzvah: of religious joy, of total, spontaneous involvement in an ecstatic, holy moment (a value that those of us who grew up in the 1960’s take to quite naturally; some might say, too much so). Maimonides, at the end of the Laws of Lulav, quotes some of the phrases from this passage as proof that even the greatest scholar should not be too haughty, too full of his own importance, to dance and rejoice with the community on occasions of sacred joy. Likewise the description of the Vilna Gaon on Simhat Torah (in Ma’aseh Rav) is based on this same model.

But David’s wife, Michal, was not an ex-hippie. She observed him dancing through the window and “felt contempt for him in her heart” (v. 16). Later, she greeted him with venomous sarcasm: “How distinguished today is the king of Israel who has exposed himself before the eyes of the maidservants, like one of the empty fellows”(v. 20). He answers that he has nothing to apologize for: he has been “playing” before God—Who, in an aside, chose him above her own father (Saul)—and that he would gladly make himself even more humble and lowly. The passage ends by reporting that Michal never had children until her dying day (v. 23).

I find this one of the most psychologically interesting vignettes in the Bible; a subtle, true-to-life portrait of marital discord. “Then Michal despised him in her heart.” Men may punish their wives with beatings, in a patriarchal society they can divorce them almost at will, they can exert economic pressure, but a woman‘s weapons are mostly psychological—but none the less effective for that. Certainly, this was true in the case of a person who was as tender-hearted and sentimental as we know David to have been (as reflected in his attitude to his children; not to mention the pathos of many of the Psalms, assuming we accept his authorship). We find here contempt, ridicule, mocking. Where did these traits come from? Was it a sense of royal etiquette, of standing on ones dignity; of a certain “Victorian” stiffness, a desire to emphasize the differences between oneself and the ordinary folk? Did it come from Saul’s home, from her having been the daughter of a king? Whatever his faults, Saul hardly seems to have been addicted to pomp and circumstance, to the trappings of royal authority. Indeed, he was in his own way warm-hearted, spontaneous, down-to-earth; the tragedy of his later years came from a suspicion and jealousy that crossed the line to paranoia. This type of insistence on ceremonial aloofness, on emphasizing ones own social superiority, is, if I may say so, more often typical of women than it is of men.

The passage ends with the brief statement, “and Michal never had children all her days.” Did she deny David her favors from then on? Or did he, repelled by her coldness and distance, by her arrogance and snobbery, avoid her bed? At times, there are moments in a relationship when some trivial event reveals the character of the other, and in an instant everything changes, never to be the same again. Or did they resume a seemingly “normal” marital life, and was hers a psychosomatic sterility, her bitterness converted into an unwillingness of her womb to “cooperate” with her desire for children? Or are we to understand this as a kind of Divine punishment for her unwarranted and unjustified contempt toward her husband? If so, perhaps it may be read as a kind of “measure for measure.” She put a damper on her husband’s natural piety and joy, his deepest expression of closeness to God, as well as his sense of at-oneness with the ordinary people; it seems to me, intuitively, that these were somehow related to David’s sense of masculinity. She was denied the feminine counterpart of that kind of joyfulness: motherhood. She was doomed to live out her life as an isolated, lonely figure.

Scene Three: The prophet Nathan has a dream, whose contents are to be conveyed to David (7:4-17), which starts out sounding like a rejection of his desire to build a Temple for God. God tells Nathan that He never asked to have an elaborate building, a “house of cedar,” made as His dwelling place; He was perfectly happy to dwell among His people in a tent or a make-shift Sanctuary. Like the passages in the later prophets playing down the importance of sacrifices, here too there is a strong de-emphasis on formal, physically impressive institutions. What is important is the spirit and people’s devotion to God.

But then He continues, after reviewing His relationship with David over the years (7:8-11), to assure him that after he dies, He, God, will establish his son’s reign and allow him to build the long-awaited Temple. More important, He will be like a father to him, caring for him in a loving way. He then concludes with the promise to David that his royal house will be established forever (v. 16)—a promise that was to occupy a central role in Jewish historiography. Overall, the tenor of this dream vision is certainly very positive and friendly to David. It is therefore interesting that in Chronicles David gives both Solomon (1 Chr 22:8) and the prince of Israel (28:3) another reason as to why he was not personally allowed to build the Temple: because “you have spilt much blood.”


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