The Sweet Singer of Israel
by HaRav Shlomo Aviner, Head of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim.
- The Shepherd
- In the Courtyard of King Shaul
- Ascension to the Throne and Jerusalem
- Bringing the Ark of G-d to Jerusalem
- Yearning to Build the Temple
- Courage and Integrity
- King David’s Legacy
- The Shepherd
A Nation was born, left Egypt, and, though difficult wars, returned to the Land of its Forefathers through difficult wars. But there were even more difficulties to come: enemies from within and from without attacked and reigned over the Nation. There was ethical corruption, idol worship and civil war between Jews which spilled much blood. The Judges arose and fixed the situation temporarily, giving the Nation a period of quiet. But the Nation again experienced darkness and agony, confusion and suffering, for everyone did as he pleased. This continued until a king arose for us: Shaul. He waged war with self-sacrifice and elevated the national honor. The mission was too great for him, however, and he fell by the arrows of the Philistines.
From the midst of the darkness, with the kindness of G-d, an amazing figure appears who saves the Nation, establishes a kingdom and provides tranquility and peace. He is not a cruel warrior, but a young man with a gentle soul, red-hair and beautiful eyes. His ancestors were of the highest caliber: Miriam the prophetess, brother of Moshe; Boaz, who is also known as Avtzan, who served as a judge; Rut, the supreme, righteous convert; his grandfather Oved and his father Yishai – both of whom served G-d with wholeness.
But David’s grace and intellect did not completely protect for him. His brothers expelled him from their father’s house, and he became a shepherd in the wilderness. But his life as a shepherd prepared him for the exalted role of king. He was merciful with his flock. He first took out the young goats and fed them soft grass. He was dedicated to his flock with his heart and soul. He was willing to enter into difficult struggles for them and fight against and defeat bears and lions to protect them.
- In the Courtyard of King Shaul
Shmuel the prophet comes and inform him that he is suited to rule over Israel, and anoints him for kingship. The anointment of David remains a secret. Nonetheless, he slowly ascends, level after level, until the Holy Spirit rests upon him. He also knew how to play music. He was therefore invited by the members of Shaul’s household to play music for the king to save him from the evil spirit which terrorized him.
David wanted to sit in tranquility with Shaul in the royal courtyard, but the anger of Goliat forced him to go out to war. During the course of forty days, Goliat this giant would wake up early and stay up late, insulting and blaspheming, in order to confuse Israel and prevent them from reciting the morning and evening Shema. The entire Nation was scared and said: who can overcome him? Shaul himself was ill at that time, and he was unable to fight him. The young David, seeing the honor of the army of Israel and the honor of G-d being trampled, became angry and said in his heart: “In a place where there are no men strive to be a man” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should taunt the armies of the living God?” (Shmuel 1 17:26). Shaul gave him his uniform and armor and they were fit for David, as befitting one who would rule in the future. Nonetheless, David preferred fighting in his shepherd’s outfit to which he had become accustomed, and he took his slingshot and five stones. David was filled with the spirit of wisdom and courage and hit Goliat in the forehead, in a place lacking armor.
Shaul was jealous of him, and instead of kissing him for the great salvation he performed for Israel, appointing him Chief of Staff and giving him his daughter, he asks in a protesting and disparaging way: “Whose son is this young man?” (Shmuel 1 17:56). In fact he knew the young man, because he was the one who would stand before him playing the harp to remove the evil spirit. But Shaul’s evil spirit remained a secret from the Nation so that they would not lose faith in his kingship. If David had been a scoundrel, he would have responded: I am your servant who plays music before you to rid you of your evil spirit. He also would have revealed his anointment as king, and then the Nation would have made him king in place of Shaul. But he was a noble and gentle man, and he simply responded: “I am David the son of your servant Yishai of Bet Lechem” (ibid. v. 58). His words ended here and he did not add anything.
“After he [David] had finished talking with Saul, Yonatan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself” (ibid. 18:1), since he saw that not only was he courageous and brave, but he guarded his tongue, and he was gentle and pure. These two friends made an eternal pact. Anyone who did not see the friendship between David and Yonatan did not see true friendship, did not see love that was not dependent on anything. Yonatan, one of the most humble people, recognized that David was better suited than him to be king, “And Yonatan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his armor, and even his sword, his bow and his belt” (ibid. v. 4). The Sages of Israel correctly saw this love as an example of idealist love, “love that is not dependent on anything” (Pirkei Avot 5:19), since there was no ulterior motive. Their concern was only for the best of their Nation and Land.
Shaul’s evil spirit continued to terrorize him, and he attempted to kill David a few times with his spear. He feared that G-d was with David, and he made him an officer in the army and David went out before the Nation. But Shaul did not stop pursuing him, and he conspired for him to fall into the hands of the Philistines. He said to David: if you will be a soldier and fight the wars of Hashem, I will give you my daughter Meirav as a wife. David fought, but Meirav was given to someone else. Shaul then said that if you bring me one hundred foreskins of the Philistines, I will give you my daughter Michal. David again passed the challenge, and Michal became his wife. In the end, Shaul sent agents to kill him, but Michal, his wife, helped him escape through a window. Fortunate is the man who has such a loyal wife. But she paid for this, and Shaul later took revenge by giving her to another man.
David fled from place to place, and even had to take refuge in Gat with Achish, the King of the Philistines, and pretend he was mentally deranged. David was still pursued by Shaul, although he was free from sin. And yet, David never took revenge against him and never injured him. Even when he had the opportunity to strike Shaul, when he was alone in a cave with him, and it would have been permissible based on the law of “If one comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a), he did not injure him. Instead he cut the corner of Shaul’s robe to prove that he had no hatred against him in his heart. Even this gracious act caused David remorse, for how did he dare to cut the king’s robe? David’s men wanted to take revenge against Shaul, and they would have conspired to do so if it were not for David standing against them with all of his power to convince them otherwise. Shaul saw David’s impeccability, cried and said: “You are more righteous than me. You treated me well while I treated you badly” (Shmuel 1 24:17). Nonetheless, the evil spirit overcame him and he continued to pursue David.
We see David’s incredible nobility in another incident as well. During his journeys, all sorts of dangerous men, outcasts of society, gathered around David and he organized them for the sake of the Nation. They served David by guarding against hooligans and enemies, and also enemies of the Nation. He and his men guarded over the flock of Naval Ha-Karmali, but when it came time for Naval to pay them for their toil and self-sacrifice, he did not fulfill his word. He responded with ungratefulness and insults. David says to his men: whoever thinks Naval is a dead man should put on his sword. His men girded their swords. But Avigial, the wife of Naval, stood firm: “This should not be a cause of grief for you, and my master’s heart should not be troubled because you have spilled blood without cause” (I Shmuel 25:31). The weak voice of a woman speaking ethically was more powerful to David than that of four hundred strong men yielding swords. “Blessed be your discernment and blessed be you, who have kept me today from shedding blood” (ibid. v. 33). David did not wound Naval, and after a few days he died on his own. Later, David merited marrying Avigial, who was a great woman and a prophetess in Israel.
David was nonetheless concerned about falling by the hand of Shaul, and decided to hide himself and his men with Achish, King of Gat. David became an officer in the army of the Philistines, and took advantage of every opportunity to strike the enemies of Israel, who caused him great distress – Amalek and the Caananites. But when the Philistines went to war against Shaul, David set a horrible trap. The Philistine officers lost faith in David and asked the king to remove him from the ranks. David continued his wars.
In the same battle with the Philistines, many Jews were killed, including Shaul and Yonatan. The survivor who informs David of their death and who related that he helped King Shaul fall on his sword, expected David to be happy that the kingship was now free. He was sure David would grant him a reward. But David tears his garments, rules that the informer be killed and laments from the depths of his heart.
- Ascension to the Throne and Jerusalem
When David ascends to the throne, his main thought is to conquer Jerusalem in order for it to be a capital for the entire Nation. The city which Hashem chose, which is not divided among the Tribes and rises above of all of the Tribes, is the heart of the Nation. The Nation requires a Land and State, an economy and security, but above all, it requires a heart, a place of Torah and prophecy, a place for the Temple. “Mountains surround Jerusalem and Hashem surrounds His Nation” (Tehillim 125:2). The city was completely fortified, surrounded by walls and towers, and its residents mocked David: “You will not enter here, even the blind and lame could turn you away” (Shmuel 2 5:6). They also claimed that they would be protected by the covenant made with Avraham Avinu. In the end, David and his men succeeded in conquering the city with wondrous courage. David nevertheless did not want to acquire the city in merit of the physical conquest, but rather collected five shekels from every Tribe and purchased the Holy City from the Yebusites by possession, money and a document (of the halachic ways of making an acquisition) as an eternal acquisition, and so that no one could ever claim that this city is not ours.
“A Song of Ascents of David. I rejoiced when they said to me: ‘Let us go to the House of Hashem.’ Our feet are standing firmly within your gates, Jerusalem. The rebuilt Jerusalem is the city that joins together. It is the place to which where the tribes ascended, the Tribes of G-d, a testimony to Israel, to give thanks to the name of Hashem. For there were set thrones for judgment, the thrones of the House of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you prosper. May peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces. For my brothers and companions’ sakes, I will say: ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the House of Hashem our G-d I will seek your good” (Tehillim 122).
But immediately after David conquered Jerusalem, a great war leapt upon him, in which David proved his bravery among the warriors and his great trust in Hashem, who said to him: “When you hear the sound of marching over the balsam trees move quickly” (Shmuel 2 5:24). David waited in ambush and held back his soldiers until the Philistines where less than four amah (six feet) away. David showed even greater bravery when he later waged war against Shovach, the commander of the army of Aram, who also claimed that Yaakov Avinu had made a pact with him (see ibid. 10:18).
- Bringing the Ark of G-d to Jerusalem
David saw that it was time to bring the Ark of G-d to the Jerusalem. “And David and all of the House of Israel played before Hashem with instruments of cypress wood, lyres, harps, drums, cornets and cymbals” (ibid. 6:5). David did not worry about his own honor but only that of his Creator. “David danced before Hashem with all his might” (ibid. 6:14). Michal, his wife, was an extremely righteous woman, but she erred here, and scorned David in her heart: “How distinguished was the King of Israel today, who exposed himself today before the handmaids of his servants as a fool uncovers himself” (Shmuel 2 6:20). She did not know that anyone who lowers himself before the Master of the Universe is greater and more honorable. David answered her: “I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes, but by these handmaids of who you spoke, I will be held in honor” (ibid. v. 22).
This was a great day for David: “And he distributed to every person in Israel, both man and woman, a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins” (ibid. 6:19). The sweet singer of Israel also sang before his G-d: “Give thanks to Hashem, declare His Name, make His acts known among the nations. Sing to Him, make music for Him, speak of all His wonders. Praise His Holy Name, may the heart of those who seek Hashem be joyous. Search out Hashem and His strength, seek His Presence always. Remember His wonders that He performed, His marvels and the judgments of His mouth. Offspring of Israel, His servant, children of Yaakov, His chosen ones, He is Hashem, our G-d, His judgments are over all the earth. He remembered His covenant forever, the word He commanded for a thousand generations (Tehillim 105:1-8).
- Yearning to Build the Temple
David came from within the Land of Israel to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to the Ark of the Covenant, and he now desired to build the Temple. He told Natan the prophet: “I am living in a palace of cedar while the Ark of God remains in a tent” (ibid. 7:2). But what David thought is not what the Master of the Universe thought. Each person has his own role and mission, and the time for building the Temple had not yet arrived. The Master of the Universe said to him: I took you from the flock to be the king over my Nation, Israel. I made you a great name like the names of the greatest people on earth. I will be with you everywhere you go and I will cut down your enemies who surround you. You have fought the wars of Hashem, you have spilled much blood, I have given my Nation a resting place and an inheritance, I have planted them in the Land. You have established my kingdom. This is your job and your mission. Your son will be your loyal successor and he will build My Temple. David responded: Who am I that You have brought me to this point, and have done for me this greatness?
- Courage and Integrity
David continues in his work of striking down Israel’s enemies: the Philistines, Moav and Aram Damascus. But he does not like to be involved in wars and to spill the enemies’ blood. He therefore had the following custom: to strike them with a major blow into submission, and then place representatives to guard the quiet and peace in every place.
Every place that you find David’s courage, you find David’s integrity. He did not want to annul the covenant of his ancestors, so he charged the Sanhedrin to investigate and search for the truth of what was said by the Philistines and Arameans. The Sanhedrin taught and David responded to the Philistines: You came to invade our Land. And to the Arameans: You have already nullified that pact with Yaakov Avinu.
His military victories and successes did not take David away from the knowledge of his Creator, and did not cause him to change anything in the conduct of his life. He remained one of the most humble of people, and he felt and related about himself: “I am a worm and not a man, scorned by man and despised by people” (Tehillim 22:7). When he was King, he remained as humble as a shepherd. The coin of David had a staff and sack of shepherd on one side and the Tower of David on the other. “Hashem, my heart is not haughty, and my eyes were not raised on high, and I did not pursue matters greater and more wondrous than I. I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother, my soul is with me like a weaned child” (Tehillim 131:1-2).
Even when he sat on the throne of kingship he lowered himself and sat on the floor to learn Torah. He would wake up each night at midnight in order to pray. “I awake at midnight to thank you” (Tehillim 119:62). A harp hung above David’s bed, and when it was midnight, a Northern wind would blow and played it. David immediately strengthened himself like a lion, got up and learned Torah with songs and praises (see Berachot 3b). He would write songs to Hashem until he completed the entire Book of Tehillim. There is nothing in the world like this book’s beauty and thirst for Hashem. All Israel, in every generation and place, pours out its soul to Hashem through these Tehillim.
David withstood many difficult trials throughout his life, but occasionally he did not, as it says: “There is no righteous man in the world who does good and does not sin” (Kohelet 7:20). But even in the place where you see the deficiency of our king, you find his greatness. After the incident with Batsheva, when Natan the prophet comes and admonishes him: why did you take the sheep of the destitute, you are that man, David did not try to conceal it. He did not say: there were no sheep here, no destitute person here and I am not the man. He simply responded: “I sinned to Hashem” (Shmuel 2 12:13), and he cried every night for thirteen years to the point that his bed was soaked with tears and his eyes hurt from crying.
“For the conductor, a song of David. When Natan the prophet came to him when he went to Batsheva… For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me…wash me and I will become whiter than snow. Make me hear joy and gladness… Create for me a pure heart, G-d, and renew a proper spirit within me. Do not cast me away from before You, and do not take Your holy spirit from me. I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to You.” (Tehillim 51:1-15). From then on, anyone who sinned – even in a severe manner – knows that the way of repentance is open before him, on condition that he confesses and cries from the depths of his heart.
As the head of the army, David also acted with great humility. David was extremely thirsty during a war and said: “If only someone would give me water from the well of Bet Lechem” (Shmuel 2 23:15). Three mighty men of David burst through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well and brought it to David, but he did not want to drink it: G-d forbidden should I act this way. Should I drink the blood of these men who risked their lives?
David never refrained from going out to difficult battles against the enemy of his Nation and putting his life in his hands until he was almost killed. His men then said: do not come out to battle with us. The light of Israel should not be extinguished.
- King David’s Legacy
“David was old, advanced in years, they covered him with a blanket but he did not become warm” (Melachim 1 1:1). The body of this brave man did not suffer from coldness but his heart became cool. David, the elder and the wise, the experienced and deep thinker, looked over the incredible kingdom he built: there was peace, blessing, a state. But maybe there is no spirit? If there is no spirit, there is nothing. Perhaps the kingdom will fall. The king is concerned and gloomy. The people of the castle saw that their king was elderly and troubled and decided: we should find a pretty young woman. The king will see her, marry her and the joy in his life and the fire of his youth will return. They planned and executed, but these fools did not know that this was not the way the king would be comforted. The young woman was beautiful but the king did not touch her.
The king saw that it was time to appoint a loyal successor. David had many children, each had his own strength: one had courage, another beauty, another smarts and another Torah. But he had only one son like Shlomo: a son whose heart was like his father’s, a wise and righteous son, who was called a friend of Hashem. David said to his son: The time when I lived is not like the time that you live. My days were days of war. It is impossible to establish a State without military men and courageous men. I was forced to suffer them, including their many deficiencies. For example, Yoav ben Tzeruya who shed the blood of war during peacetime and Shimi ben Gera who rebelled against me and cursed me. It is now a time of quiet and tranquility, and you know what to do with these people if they try to follow the same path they followed during my life, since you are a wise man.
He also commanded him: I desire with all my heart to build a House for Hashem. And now, my son, may Hashem be with you and you should succeed in building the Temple of Hashem. May Hashem give you the wisdom and understanding to observe the Torah of Hashem.
David also managed to gather together all of the princes of Israel, the Cohanim and Levi’im and distribute to them their roles for working in the Temple. He also gave his son the plan of how the Temple was to be built. Furthermore, he collected large quantities of silver, gold, iron, bronze for building the Temple.
This is the greatest last testament that our king gave to his Nation before his death: Listen my brothers and Nation: Observe all of the mitzvot of Hashem your G-d for the sake of possessing the good Land and bequeath it to your children for eternity.
David goes to his world, and the kingdom he establishes falls. But his songs constantly remain in our mouth, the songs of the sweet singer of Israel. Nothing like this ever occurred in the thousands of years of human history: a king who sang amazing, holy songs. Fortunate are we that the King of Israel belongs to us, the Nation of Israel. There is no one like him.
One other thing which Israel always knows: David, King of Israel, lives and exists. We always knew that our exiles would be gathered, our Land would be built, our kingdom re-established, that we would return to Jerusalem, our Holy City, and that the light of Hashem would shine within us.
And this time is coming: “A song of ascents. When Hashem will bring the exiles back to Zion, we will be like a dreamer. Now, our mouth is filled with laughter, and our tongue with song. Then it was said among the nations, ‘Hashem has done great things with these people.’ Hashem has done great things for us, and we rejoice. We should return from our captivity, Hashem, like streams gushing through the Negev. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. One goes out weeping when burdened with the full measure of seeds. He shall surely come in joy, bearing his harvested sheaves” (Tehillim 126).