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Haftarah Parshat Shmini

Haftarah Parshat Shmini (2 Samuel 6:1-7:17)
April 22, 2017 / 26 Nisan 5777

Biblical stories are wont to remind us that nothing in life is uncomplicated. Triumph is frequently mixed with tragedy and joy with animosity. The haftarah opens with David’s attempt to return the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. This trek is marred by the tragic death of Uzza, who for some undetermined reason is struck down while trying to save the Ark from falling off the cart on which it was transported. When David finally accomplishes his mission and the Ark is brought to Jerusalem, he parades the Ark into the city with great fanfare, leading the tumultuous celebration himself with wild ecstatic dancing before the assembled crowds. This frenzied dancing infuriated David’s long abandoned wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul, David’s predecessor: “Michal, the daughter of Saul look out through the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord, and she scorned him in her heart.” (6:16)

At the ceremony’s end, David came to bless his household and instead faces a barrage of criticism from Michal: “How honored today is the king of Israel who has exposed himself to the eyes of his servants’ slave-girls (amahot), as some scurrilous fellow would expose himself!” (6:20) Michal’s response should not have surprised David as he had abandoned Michal long ago and her response was surely colored by this fact. (Robert Alter, Ancient Israel, p. 459) Nevertheless, her sardonic greeting was met by an equally acerbic response: “’Before the Lord, who had chosen me instead of your father and instead of all of his house, to appoint me prince over the Lord’s people, over Israel, I will play before the Lord! And I will be dishonored still more than this and will be debased in my own eyes! But with slave-girls (amahot) about whom you spoke, with them let me be honored!’ And Michal the daughter of Saul had no children till her dying day.” (6:21-3)

The midrashim on this episode accentuate the sexual/political tension inherent in this story. One example will suffice: “Michal to him (David): My father’s house was more dignified than yours. Heaven forfend, if you would ever see someone among then with a bare shoulder or a bare ankle, rather they always conducted themselves with dignity. And what was David’s reply to her? ‘Before God who has chosen me.’ He said to her: ‘Your father’s house was very concerned about their own honor and less concerned about God’s honor. I am not that way. I set aside my own honor and put God’s honor first. He [further] said: ‘And should you say that I was debased in my own eyes and dishonored before other.’ Scripture says: ‘And in the eyes of the slave-girls (ha’amahot)’. Heaven forfend, that you should be said to be from among the “amahot”, know rather that you will not take part in “imahut” (motherhood).” (adapted from Midrash Shmuel 25:6 Lipshitz ed. p. 86)

This midrash adds some zing to the story. Through a play on words at the end, David’s remarks are even more biting and mean. The valuable takeaway from both the biblical story and its midrashic recasting is that it is a false expectation that life, even religious life, will be without intrigues and complications. King David’s life had its religious highs woven together with its interpersonal lows. It was certainly not flawless. All of us, even the supposedly most saintly must try to muddle through life hopefully avoiding pitfalls as best we can.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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