D’var Torah: Haftarah Shemini

Despite our fascination with food, I’ve decided not to talk about today’s parashah, with its detailed descriptions of kosher and treyf sources of meat, neither of which are ever served at a KI kiddush. Instead I want to look at our wonderful, albeit long, haftarah from the Second Book of Samuel.

The selection contains two crucial events in the development of Israelite civilization: the arrival of the ark in Jerusalem and the revelation of God’s unconditional covenant never to abandon the house of David and its claim to the royal throne. Sandwiched between these two monumental moments is a bawdy snippet of domestic comedy which, in my reading, is essential for understanding the events surrounding it.

Here’s the deal: David, in his exultation at the arrival of the ark, partied ecstatically, displaying such abandon in his love of God that he was oblivious to being on center stage on MTV, raising more eyebrows than Britney and Janet Jackson combined. Clad only in an ephod, which seems to be a kind of miniskirt with shoulder straps, amidst his leaping and whirling he let it all hang out.

When the party was over his wife Michal, or rather, his first of several wives, gave him the third degree. ”Look how the King of Israel honored himself today, exposing himself today to the eyes of the slavegirls of his subjects, just as one of the riffraff might completely expose himself.” David snapped back and took all the wind out of her sails: “I’m the one that God choice to be ruler over Israel. Not your father, and not his family! So I’m going to dance before God, and dishonor myself even more, and be low even in my eyes. But among those slaves girls that you are talking about, I will be honored!” The narrator ends coyly with the punchline: “And so Michal, the daughter of Saul, never had a child, up to the day she died.”

In preparing the haftarah, I saw how the Masorites, the medieval editors of biblical text, colluded in the joke with their musical trope marks. Twice, first in thought and later in words, Michal took on the naggy tone of the jealous spouse through repetitive trope motifs. First in 2 Samuel 6:16, when Michal looked out the window, what she saw and despised was King David leaping and whirling. And in her rant at David, the same musical motif is chanted three times naggingly in the phrase “that he exposed himself today before the eyes of the slave girls of his subject.”

But I didn’t fully grasp the significance of all this low comedy until I discovered, the hard way, how close to home it struck. It was a typical morning in the Zimmerman house. I had just finished exercising this week’s haftarah, and while preparing breakfast I started thinking about a couple of programs I was preparing, a meeting that evening, and other KI business. A couple of times my wife had tried to talk to me about a couple of things: putting away the pans in the right drawer, not leaving my papers around, paying the credit card bill on time—I’m not sure exactly what, which of course was part of the problem. Then I indiscretely said something about this hilarious haftarah I was working on, and how the trope reinforced the motif of the nagging wife while David was caught up with the serious business of serving God and running the kingdom. She then pointed out, not exactly dispassionately, that both the biblical narrative and the melodic chant setting were the work of men—male chauvinist pigs who had their heads in the clouds and either ignored the legitimate concerns of their wives altogether or else dismissed them as bitching and nagging, just as you know who had been ignoring or dismissing everything his wife was trying to tell him that morning. I thought about that for a while, first in the uncomfortable space of confronting my own way of being in relationship and later in the safer terrain of analyzing this week’s haftarah. David had become trapped by his own self-importance. The man who could boast, “I will dishonor myself even more and be low in my own esteem, while being honored among slavegirls” was the man who soon thereafter was to willfully sacrifice the life of one of his most faithful soldiers out of royal arrogance and blind lust for the man’s wife.

If the text had eliminated David’s argument with Michal, then the conquering hero who rescued the holy ark, God’s eternally anointed one, would be larger than life, like the marble statue of a Roman emperor, a man on whose countenance the sun rose and set, a demagogue who would honor his subjects by letting them die in his name and show his respects and admiration by exercising his conjugal rights to his subject’s comely wife. Instead, we are given a glimpse of a very human David, a flawed human being, a petty self-centered little man whose lack of respect for the concerns of a wife who had once saved his life by defying her own father was no different from his lack of respect for his loyal soldier Uriah, and later on his obliviousness to the faithful subjects who risked their lives to restore his kingdom after the revolt of Absalom.

Until David fired his retort at Michal, we might have mistaken his flash dance for a genuine abandonment to the love of God, in the spirit of the Tibet sage Milarepa, who spent so many years meditating in a cave that when his sister expressed outrage at his nakedness, he meekly apologized that he had become so immersed in the light of higher awareness that he forgot about his sex organ. No, David may have forgotten his respect and humility while he was busy making history, but he obviously had not forgotten his appetites. Similarly, the reader might have mistaken the Prophet Nathan’s extraordinary prophecy of God’s unconditional support for the House of David as a blessing of immortality, except that we had already received a premonition of David’s tragic character flaw. In the brilliantly crafted Shakespearean prose of the Books of Samuel, that was all the clue we needed that the prophet’s blessing would turn out to be a curse like Midas’s touch—generation after generation locked into deadly battles for succession. This curse has continued long after the royal thrones of Judah and Israel were destroyed. Eventually it was a dispute over who would sit upon the celestial throne of Moshiach ben David that led to millennia of Christian persecution of Jews. Bathsheba’s embraces—and Michal’s marital neglect—came at a very high price.

In this era of two-income households and unbounded hours of professional obligations, it is more important than ever to recognize the lesson in this haftarah. None of us and none of our urgent projects are important enough to compromise the integrity and well-being of our family lives. Our partners and our children are no less deserving of our attention than our work.

I’ve tried to demonstrate how the domestic encounter between Michal and David is essential for understanding the monumental events surrounding it in this haftarah. As we approach Yom Hashoah this weekend, with its theme this year of “justice and humanity,” we can pray for that the day may soon arrive when all human beings are treated with respect and each of us can honor the humanity and dignity of every person in our lives.

—Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
April, 2004D’var Torah: Haftarah Shemini

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