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Shemini 5772

Haftarah Parshat Shemini (Eretz Yisrael)
(2 Samuel 6:1-7:17)
April 14, 2012
22 Nisan 5772

Parshat Shmini (2 Samuel 6:1-7:17) – Eretz Yisrael, 5772

The rabbinic tradition has always been perplexed by the tragic story of the death of Uzzah, who lost his life when David sought to transport the “ark of God” in a wagon from Kiryath Jearim to Jerusalem: “But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the ox had stumbled. The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. David was distressed because the Lord had inflicted a breach upon Uzzah. (6:6-8) Since the biblical story offers no real explanation for this tragedy, sages throughout the ages have used it as an opportunity to impose their own concerns onto the story.

In one particularly audacious interpretation, Uzzah’s death is described as punishment for David’s irreverence for the Torah: “Raba expounded: Why was David punished [with Uzzah’s death on his account]? Because he called words of Torah \’songs\’, as it is said: ‘Your laws are a song to me wherever I dwell.’ (Psalms 119:54) The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: \’Words of Torah, of which it is written: You see it is gone (Proverbs 23:5), you recite as songs! I will cause you to stumble in a matter which even school-children know.\’ For it is written: ‘But unto the sons of Kohath he gave none, because the service of the sanctuary… their portage was by shoulder’ (Numbers 7:9); and yet [David] brought it in a wagon.” (Sotah 35a)

This midrash seemingly attributes Uzzah’s death to David’s treating of the Torah as if it were a song. This interpretation is based on reversing the positive intent of the verse from Psalms and turning it into a negative statement. This seems strange to us since we are normally thrilled to have a verse from the Torah set to song.

If so what might be Rabbah’s intent? God punished David by making him forget an important law. As a consequence, another person was harmed on account of David. David was punished by forgetting Torah because he treated it in a seemingly frivolous way. (In rabbinic theology, this punishment is known as ‘midah k’neged midah – measure for measure.) I surmise that Rabbah intends to warn his colleagues against the frivolous or facile treatment of Torah. If the Torah is treated merely as a ‘song’ and not something monumental, requiring prudence and due process, the repercussions might be awful. For those charged with responsibility for the lives of other people, the punishment for such behavior is likely to fall on the heads of one’s charges. David was grievously pained by the the consequences of his actions, as he should have been. Rabbah wants all of us to learn a serious lesson from his pain as well. (See Mishnah Berurah 603 s.q. 4)

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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