King David’s festival

Neither Shavuot nor King David would be possible without the Oral Torah.

June 7, 2014 22:11
king david

An old wooden chessboard depicts King David.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The sages turned Shavuot into a celebration of Revelation, not just an agricultural festival. They seem to have missed an opportunity to establish Moses as the hero of the occasion by allowing popular sentiment to associate the day with King David.

Moses brought the Israelites to Sinai to receive the Torah and then ascended the mountain for the additional Divine instructions, but Shavuot treats him shabbily and gives him inadequate praise in the annals of the festival. It is well known that he receives little credit in the Passover Haggadah for bringing the people out of Egypt. It appears that the redactors of the Haggadah deliberately suppressed his name, possibly as part of a polemic – whether it be against the Sadducees, the dualists, the Christians or the Karaites. One might have thought that tradition would make it up to him on Shavuot. But no: if the festival has a hero, it is King David.

David is the most beloved king of Israel. He founded the dynasty that will one day make Israel and the entire world messianic. Every stage in his career is woven with garlands: as shepherd, harpist and poet, scholar and sage, friend (and enemy) of royalty, warrior and outlaw, and occupant of the throne of Israel for 40 years. Every Davidic moment is precious to midrashist and muse.

No wonder Ezekiel says, “David my servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.”

Whether “shepherd” has a capital or a small “s”, the result is the same – David’s progeny will personify the end-of-days regime when the kingdom will be restored and the Messiah will rule.

But David is no mere political figure. He is the “sweet singer of Israel” whose psalms (never mind the question of how many were his own work) speak with the poetic voice of Israel’s faith – about God and the city of God, about Israel and the heart of Israel, about righteousness, justice, truth and peace – the whole value system that informs and inspires the emotion and intellect of the generations of our history.

According to the Zohar, Adam admired David so much that he forfeited 70 years of his own life and gave them to David. In return, David brought extra life, inspiration, comfort and joy to the world of Adam’s descendants. No wonder the Jewish badge is the Shield of David. No wonder David’s shield is the centerpiece of Israel’s flag, the Sabbath-night meal is his seudah, his tomb is a place of pilgrimage, Jerusalem is the City of David, and the city’s best hotel is named after him and stands in King David Street.

Shavuot is associated with David because it is said to be his Yahrzeit. No other biblical Yahrzeit has a Yom Tov for itself. Not that most people know of the link between David and Shavuot. David wouldn’t mind, if only they honored the Torah given on that day.

But it is not just calendrical co-incidence that made Shavuot into David’s festival. Tradition remade David the warrior-poet into an intellectual hero who personifies the Talmid-Hacham ideal as a leader among the gedolei ha-dor, the prominent sages of the generation.

Yet Mohammed, who called the Jews the People of the Book, led to the myth that the Jews distorted and dishonored that Book and imagined or invented their roots in the Land and the sanctity of the Jerusalem Temple.

In Christianity and Islam, it is not Torah learning that is admired in David. Christianity sees Jesus as a new David without the faults of the old, while Islam lauds David’s religious zeal but not his nationalism.

The Gospels are sure that Jesus literally descends from David, but recognize that Davidic descent came through Jesus’ father Joseph who is believed not to have physically begotten his son.

In Judaism, David is a Torah scholar.

Bialik wrote a sad piece about God being fed up with the Jews and demanding the Torah back. In our generation he would portray a God with little to complain about. There is more Torah study today than for centuries, even more than in the great days of Jewish Eastern Europe. Jews once learned Torah because that was the done thing. Today they choose to learn. Replacing oranges and lemons, yeshivot are Israel’s greatest Jewish growth industry these days – and not just among the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).

The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot not merely because David was Ruth’s descendant and this is his Yahrzeit, but because if she were excluded by the verse, “A Moabite shall not enter the congregation of the Lord,” David could not have been king. But the sages say, “Moabite, not Moabitess,” so David is safe, as is the future Messiah. Both owe their status to the Oral Torah, which underscores Shavuot as the anniversary of both the written and the oral tradition.

6 Sivan, the day the Pharisees accepted for Shavuot, is based on the rabbis’ interpretation of “the morrow of the day of rest” in Leviticus 23. To them, a festival (in this case Passover) is a “day of rest,” whereas the Sadducees take the phrase “day of rest” as Saturday and start counting towards Shavuot from a Sunday.

The Pharisee interpretation is part of the Oral Torah which gave Judaism the potential to move into new eras and handle new challenges. Neither Shavuot nor King David would be possible without the Oral Torah.

But on the other hand, without Moses, who did so much and is accorded so little credit, there would be neither Written nor Oral Torah. Had Moses not gone up to Mount Sinai to receive Divine instruction in the interpretations that are implicit but not explicit in written Scripture, Judaism would have been the poorer.

Moses may be missing from the Haggadah and barely mentioned on Shavuot, but in his absence he is still present.

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