Today is November 24, 2017 -

Shemini 5770

Parshat Shemini
(2 Samuel 6:1-7:17)
April 10, 2010
26 Nisan 5770

King David sorely wanted to build the Temple. After he had established himself as king in Jerusalem and built a palace for himself, he felt derelict in not having built a house for God. David took his request to Nathan the prophet who at first acceded to David\’s appeal (7:2-3). That night, however, Nathan received a prophetic message from God: \”Go and say to My servant, David: \’Thus said the Lord: Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in? From the day that I brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. As I have moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built for Me a house of cedar?\’\” (7:5-7) The version of this story found in the later Biblical book, Chronicles, is even more adamant in its refusal to grant David permission to build the Temple: \”You are not the one to build a house for me to dwell in.\” (1 Chronicles 17:4) This passage asserts that the reason David was not permitted to build the Temple was that God was not interested in having a permanent stationary home for the Holy Ark.

The sages, however, knowing that ultimately the Temple would be built by David\’s son, Solomon, wondered why it was that David was not permitted to build the Temple. Many different answers have been offered to this question. I present here an unusual midrashic story that attempts to answer this question: \”Rabbi Hunia in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: One thousand five hundred cubits (a measure of distance) David dug to reach the foundation of the earth (in order to insure that the Temple would be built on virgin earth). (Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel reported: Land could be considered untouched or virgin earth only if one did not find there a potshard.) David dug so deeply (one thousand five hundred cubits) that in the end he found a potshard. He said to himself: \’All of this toil and I found a potshard [not recognizing that this potshard was different]? At that moment, the Holy One blessed be He, caused the potshard to speak and it said: I don\’t belong but when the earth split open [when the Torah was given], I sunk down to the depths to keep the primal water from bursting forth. David did not believe the story and picked up the pot shard, releasing the primal waters into the world. [Only the advice of Ahitophel allowed him to restore the waters to their rightful place.]\” (Adapted from Midrash Shmuel 26:2 Lipshitz ed. p. 87 and Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2 29a)

What was David\’s sin here? The midrash does not answer this question explicitly. May I suggest that David is punished here for his hubris? In not believing the story told him by the potshard and removing it from its place, he set the entire world at risk and consequently was not considered worthy to build the Temple – the institution intended to secure the world\’s existence. Arrogance is a dangerous quality in leaders, whose decisions should be thoughtful and tempered. The sages seem to have used David to teach us this important truth.

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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