Haftarah Parshat Shemini
(2 Samuel 6:1-7:17)
April 6, 2013
26 Nisan 5773
King David wanted the Holy Ark brought up to Jerusalem. In his mind, he had arranged for this to be a festive event. It was to be brought up to the city on an ox drawn wagon, accompanied by the king and his followers joyously dancing before the ark. This joyous occasion, however, turned into a tragedy. The wagon stopped short and Uzzah, one of the men accompanying the ark, reached out and grabbed the ark of God to prevent it from falling. God waxed angry at Uzzah and struck him down and he died. David’s response to this tragedy is described in these words: “David became distressed (vayihar l’David) because God had inflicted a breach against Uzzah.” (6:8)
What, in particular, caused David’s anxiety? Certain sages took a clue from the expression “vayehar l’David” which seems to have indicated to them that David assumed that this tragic event was caused by something that he had done: “Rabbi Nathan said: David had forgotten that the Ark was to have been carried on the shoulders of Levites and not in a wagon, as it says: ‘They loaded the Ark of God onto a new cart’ (6:3); ‘And God became angry at Uzzah and God struck him down for his indiscretion and he died there beside the Ark of God’ (6:7); ‘And David became distressed because God had inflicted a breach against Uzzah’ (6:8). Ahitophel said to David: Shouldn’t you have learned from Moses, your teacher, that the Levites carried the Ark on their shoulders and not in a wagon? (adapted from Sifrei Bemidbar Piska 46, Kahana ed. pp. 132-3)
In this midrash, Ahitophel, who was a counselor and sage to David (and eventually betrayed him in Absalom’s rebellion against David), is portrayed here as David’s teacher who alerted him to the error which caused Uzzah’s tragic death. In the sixth chapter of Mishnah Avot (which is a later post Mishnaic addition to the book), Ahitophel’s role in this story is expounded in order to teach a lesson: “He who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a single Halacha, a single verse, a single expression, or even a single letter must pay him honor, for so we find with regard to David, king of Israel, who learned only two things from Ahitophel, but called him his teacher, his companion, his friend… If David, king of Israel, who learned only two things from Ahitophel, called him his teacher, his companion, his friend, how much more then must he who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a single Halacha, a single verse, a single expression, or even a single letter pay him honor ’” (6:3 – adapted)
The bottom line of this teaching is that if David could be appreciative to Ahitophel (of all people) for what he taught him, how much more so should all of us who have learned so much from our teachers who have shared with us their wisdom express our thanks and appreciation for what we have been taught.
*In memory of my father in law, rabbi and teacher, Professor Avraham Goldberg on his first yahrtzeit.