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Shemini 5766

Parshat Shemini
(II Samuel 6:1-7:17)
April 22, 2006

King David\’s attempts to retrieve the Holy Ark and bring it up to Jerusalem met with mixed results. His first attempt met with tragic consequences when it was marked by the tragic death of Uzzah, who, while leading the wagon carrying the ark, grabbed it to ensure that it would not fall to the ground when the oxen pulling the wagon lurched, and was struck down by God: \”The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion and he died there beside the Ark\” (2 Samuel 6:7; See 1 Chron. 13:8 – \”because he had laid a hand on the Ark\”)

It is hard to explain this paradoxical tragedy (See my commentary for Shmini 5761), but one can easily understand David\’s trepidation at continuing what he thought to be the will of God in bringing the ark up to Jerusalem: \”David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, \’How can I let the Ark of the Lord come to me?\’\” (Verse 9) David left the ark at the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and his whole household. (See verse 11) When David ascertained that it was possible to successfully accomplish his mission, he did it with the greatest enthusiasm: \”David whirled (mekharker) with all his might before the Lord.\” (Verse 14)

This translation represents the simple or peshat meaning of the word \”mekharker\”. The following midrash offers a playful interpretation of the word \”mekharker\” using the fact that this word is similar to a Greek word: \”What is mekharker? He clapped his hands together and on each clap said \’kiri\’ (Greek for slave) to on High (namely, he said: \’I am a slave to God\’).\” (Numbers Rabbah 4:20)

David\’s unbridled rejoicing before the Ark caused his wife, Michal, Saul\’s daughter, great consternation since she thought his behavior immodest and unbecoming a king. The following midrash takes this painful confrontation between husband and wife and puts it on a religious/philosophical plane not necessarily found in the peshat of this story: \”Michal said to David: \’My father\’s kingship was more dignified than yours for one never saw his wrist or his ankle [which David apparently revealed in his dancing] so all of them were more dignified than you. And how did David respond to her? \’It is before the Lord who chose me over your father.\’ (Verse 21), since your father only desired self honor and glory and set aside God\’s honor, while I set aside self honor and only desire God\’s honor. (abridged from Midrash Shmuel 25:6 Buber ed. pp. 124-5)

David\’s ecstatic enthusiasm as portrayed in the biblical story and in his response as found in Midrash Shmuel served as a model for Maimonides for how one should approach fulfilling God\’s commandments: \”The joy that a person should rejoice in the performance of a commandment and the love of God that God commanded in doing them is a great service [to God]. Anyone who refrains oneself from this joy, deserves to be punished, as it is written: \’since you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and with a goodly heart.\’ Anyone who becomes haughty and becomes overly concerned with his or her own honor and takes glory in him or herself- these are sinners and fools… but one who humbles oneself spiritually and physically, this is the one to be greatly honored for s/he serves [God] with love. And so David, King of Israel said: \’I made light of my self and lowered my own self esteem\” (Verse 22), for there is no greatness and honor except to rejoice before God, as it says: \’And the king David leaped and whirled before God.\’ (Verse 16) (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Lulav 8:15)

Maimonides argues that joy in serving God should be the focal point of religious life, superseding the joy a person might seek in one\’s own gratification. This viewpoint is at odds with some more contemporary religious worldviews but it is one still worthy of consideration.

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.

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