Parshat Bemidbar/Mahar Hodesh
(I Samuel 20:18-42)
May 27, 2006
The plot of the story involving David, King Saul, and Saul\’s son Jonathan is an intricate one filled with emotion, intrigue, complicated human interactions and inexplicable responses – a great story, filled with tension and unexpected twists and turns. It is hard to comprehend what is going on in King Saul\’s mind, let alone to fathom his seemingly irrational behavior. The storyline of this special haftarah for a Shabbat which immediately precedes Rosh Hodesh, finds David and Jonathan plotting a test to determine Saul\’s state of mind regarding David. Jonathan tells David that he will alert him to his father Saul\’s attitude toward him by testing how his father reacts to David\’s planned absence from the king\’s Rosh Hodesh banquet. If there is no danger to David\’s life, Jonathan will send one sort of message and if David is in danger, another.
Jonathan frames his message to David in these words: \”Now I will shoot three arrows to the side of it, as though I were shooting at a mark, and I will order the boy to go find the arrows. If I call to the boy: \’Hey! The arrows are on this side of you,\’ be assured and come, for you are safe and there is no danger – as the Lord lives! But if instead, I call to the lad: \’Hey! The arrows are beyond you,\’ then leave, for the Lord has sent you away.\” (Verses 20-22)
Jonathan seemingly frames his understanding of his father\’s behavior as an indication that it is God\’s will that David should flee and save himself from Saul\’s wrath. This is exactly how Targum Jonathan understands Jonathan\’s words: \”Flee for God saved you.\” Similar Rabbi David Kimche builds on this idea: \”You should surely go for God has sent you that you might take refuge from my father\’s sword.\”
Maimonides includes this verse in a chapter of his \”Guide to the Perplexed\” which he considers to be among his most important. In this chapter, he considers the issue of what is meant in the Bible when it says that God did something or said something or sent something where what happened was not a direct message to a prophet. He includes among his examples of this phenomenon when God uses an inanimate object or an animal do something or when a human being infers something from what happens around him or her (which is our case). How is one to know that what one sees is prophecy when what one sees can not be directly related to God? For Maimonides, it is not the phenomenon which is the prophecy; rather it is the cognition of the individual who discerns the message which is the prophecy. So, here, it is not Saul\’s behavior which is the prophetic message; it is Jonathan\’s awareness of the significance of what is happening around him that constitutes God\’s message. (Guide, part 2, ch. 48; see also Eliezer Goldman, Expositions and Inquires. pp. 115-22, Heb.)
Rabbi Meir Malbim (19th century, Bylorussia) attempts, in his commentary, to combine these two world views: \”Thus you were saved through God\’s providential care for the danger was certain, and it is obvious if there were only a single sign the thing would be in doubt.\” In other words, God made the sign and if he did not show it to Jonathan a number of times, he would not have been certain of its meaning.
What is significant about Maimonides\’ reading of this passage is its message about what prophecy means to him. The prophet, for Maimonides, is someone who is natively talented and well trained to discern the message which God has given him to discern. This is an important lesson even for those of us who are a little less than prophets. Religion and its truths are often about how one sees the world around him or her and discerns the world in which he or she lives. If one chooses to see God\’s \”hand\” in the world, one will see it and if not, one will not, or as it is put in a midrash: \”It is taught in a Tannaitc teaching by Rabbi Simon bar Yohai , If you are My [God\’s] witnesses, says the Lord, then I am God, and if you are not My witnesses, then, as it were, it is as if I am not the Lord.\” (Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 12:6, Mandebaum ed. p. 208)
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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