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At that time G-d said to Joshua: "Make yourselves knives out of flint, and circumcise the Israelites a second time." (Joshua 5:2)
By way of introduction…
The main content of the Haftara refers to the spiritual preparations made by the Israelites for the first campaign in their conquest of the Holy Land - the routing of Jericho. Their preparations took two forms. Firstly military preparation - Joshua did not rely entirely on supernatural intervention, but he sent two spies to obtain details of the city they were to about to take, and he made use of their information in planning the overthrow of Jericho. Secondly - the subject of the Haftara - it was made clear that the Israelites' settling of the Holy Land was to be as G-d's people only.
The Holy Land is charged with intrinsic spiritual qualities. This concept is represented by the idea that on Jacob's return after fleeing from Laban, 'angels of G-d met him' (Gen. 32:2). The Tanchuma (Vayishlach 3) relates how, at that point, the angels who accompanied him outside Israel were replaced with other angels whose territory was the Holy Land only. Those angels represented a much more intense form of the Shechina than that found outside Israel. And that is the reason, according to the Ramban, that Rachel died before Jacob had progressed far into the holiest part of Israel. Such is the spiritual makeup of the Holy Land that it cannot accommodate phenomena that are incompatible with it - as in that case, Jacob's having married two sisters.
Thus the Israelites opened their settlement on the western bank of the Jordan with public Torah observance - before taking any Canaanite city. This act may be seen as consummating their spiritual relationship with the Land; of inducing increased spirituality to its holy territory. By following the Commandments, the Land itself is further raised to a spiritual level whereby it cannot intrinsically tolerate any deviations in basic morality or idolatry. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 87a) points out, the Holy Land is at the geographical pinnacle of the Creation - 'the Land of Israel is higher than all other lands'. In spiritual terms, it has a greater concentration of the Shechina (Divine Presence of G-d) than any other location. So it may be said that the Israelites' first positive steps in entering the Promised Land was an act of adding to that very greater concentration of the Shechina. That would have made the spiritual forces of the Holy Land allies of the Israelites and enemies of the pagan Canaanites.
The Haftara recounts the details of Torah observance that opened their entry to the Land. The Israelites born during the forty years of wandering in the desert had not been circumcised, and Joshua is now commanded to make sharp knives out of rock flints, to bring them into the covenant of Abraham by circumcising all males.
The mentioning of rock flints is important: one would have expected knives. That detail highlights the faith that the Israelites developed, which enabled them to conquer Canaan. They had been nomads for the last forty years and technologically backward - and rationally they must have known that they were no match for the Canaanites, whom, according to both Biblical and archaeological records, had already entered the Iron Age. Indeed, archaeological findings support the miracles of the conquest. For example, the destruction by fire of the city Hazor in the second half of the thirteenth century BCE (according to dating methods currently used) harmonizes with the Biblical note that Hazor itself was the only city burnt by the invading Israelites (11:13). Hazor, investigated by Yigal Yadin (1956-9), was found to be a vast and splendid city, with strong gates and massive walls. Archaeologists are still perplexed: they find it extremely difficult to explain how the Israelites, in their technological backwardness, virtually destroyed a city of then premier international importance.
The people then offered the Passover offering in the plains of Jericho - the text does not offer comment on that offering because, not doubt, they had no shortage of sheep, having developed a tradition of pastoral nomadism in their desert wanderings. The great change that came in their lives was in the grain - used for the matzot (5:11). Israelites were initiated towards becoming settled farmers by their 'eating from the produce of the land'. They were becoming more self reliant - as befitting of their existence in their own land, rather than continuing to exist supernaturally on the manna that had nourished them in the desert.
The Haftara concludes with an angel who, in the guise of a warrior with a drawn sword, appears to Joshua, informing that he has come to instruct him how to capture Jericho. He tells Joshua to remove his shoes because the ground on which he stands in holy - no doubt all the more holy because of the spiritually exemplary way in which Joshua had led the Israelites into the Holy Land. This detail of the supernatural weaving into the natural is important. It shows what people of faith even to this day constantly stress: how faith in keeping the Mitzvot can bring help from the most unexpected directions. In this case, like Hazor, Jericho was technologically very well defended with enormous walls from the Middle Bronze Age. Indeed, the researches of Kenyon show that the city was indeed destroyed at this time and not resettled for a very long period afterwards.
The obvious question presenting itself on the text is the following. How is it possible that the Israelites in the desert - at the very point of contact with Divine revelation - could have overlooked male circumcision? And how could a whole new generation have actually entered the Promised Land without having come into the Covenant of Father Abraham?
The Talmud (Yevamot 71-72) explains at length why our forefathers did not perform the mitzva of circumcision in the desert. It considers the notion that the atmospheric conditions needed for healing the wound were absent for the entire forty years. It also suggests that the fatigue and weakness incurred from constant travelling made the operation dangerous. Since they were obliged to move camp with the rising of the pillar of cloud (Num. 9:17-23), they would not be able to wait for the wound to heal, and their enforced travel would put the newly circumcised boy at risk.
However, this seems to conflict with the following. The Torah records that Moses faced imminent death at the Hand of G-d under similar conditions. He was returning from Midyan to Egypt, also under Divine Leadership. The Torah (Ex. 4:24-6) records that he had not circumcised his son (Eliezer). G-d 'met' Moses and wanted to kill him. Only his wife Zipporah's timely intervention in taking a flint and circumcising the son prevented Moses' instant demise. Why could he not fall back on the above arguments of personal risk?
In looking at these issues, consider the following story with its appended note.
A certain Rebbe was once sentenced to a term of many years of imprisonment in Siberia. One day, when his sentence was almost over, the commandant sent for him… With a stern glance at the prisoner, he stated:
"You are now free to go. But before we can free you officially, you must sign this document."
Immediately the Rebbe rejoined:
"I cannot sign this document for today is our Sabbath and no writing is permitted. If you will allow me to return tomorrow, I will gladly sign it."
At this the commandant flew into a terrible rage:
"Now I see that it is true what they say, that you Jews are nothing but subversives and rebels. You seek only to undermine the Communist system. If you do not sign this paper today, you will return to the camp for another term of imprisonment!"
The Rebbe pondered deeply for a while, but since he was a great servant of G-d, he suspected that the voice that told him to sign and go free was the voice of the Evil Inclination. So he replied:
"In that case, I am afraid I will have to accept your hospitality for a little longer, for I simply cannot sign."
Still in a frightful rage, the commandant waved him aside.
Next, an old Jew marched up to the desk. He, too, was due to leave the camp and his dilemma proved to be the same as the Rebbe's. He was a fairly religious Jew. However, had the Rebbe not preceded him, he might have considering desecrating the Sabbath in this instance. However, the Rebbe's example still pervaded the atmosphere, so he too refused to sign. Again, the commandant flew into a rage.
But suddenly the Rebbe stepped forward.
"Have you something to say?"
"Yes. I will sign for this man here."
To this unexpected comment the commandant could offer no reply, for he was absolutely flabbergasted and silenced.
"What is going on here?" he asked.
"Let me explain," said the Rebbe, in reasonable tones. "This old man is old and frail. In my estimation, if he has to return to the camp, he will not survive another term of imprisonment. Therefore I would be allowed to sign for him, as it is a clear case of danger to life (pikuach nefesh). But I myself am much younger, and with G-d's help I could survive camp life a while longer"
Both men were subsequently allowed to go free after Shabbat.
An important note was appended to the story (reference below):
This story should not be taken as a Halachic guide, for according to the Halacha, even a doubtful danger to life would allow a person to dispense with the prohibition of melacha (forbidden categories of work) on Shabbat.
The principle of the above illustrate the values contained in the issue of the Israelite delay in male circumcision until their entry into the Promised Land. Moses' was like the Rebbe. He had additional protection on his side. And, distinguishing him from the Rebbe, he was on a personal mission with G-d's hand on his shoulder. The level of faith required of him, being so close to G-d, was that he was to carry out all His commandments even if there was a possible level of personal risk.
But that was not something that Moses could or should have imposed on the Israelites. One can be a tzaddik (righteous person), but not at the expense of other people. Such were the conditions at the time that circumcision was a far more risky operation than today. Those risks had to be kept to an absolute minimum. The babies would have been Halachically in the same position of the old man - it is built into the structure of the Halacha that virtually all commandments are suspended when life is at risk: especially when sudden marching orders were expected at any moment. And that seems to be a classic example of Torah sanctifying life above almost everything else…
The story is from Dansky M.: As heard from Rabbi Wagschal (1997), pp. 73-75
"For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
And not departed wickedly from my G-d.
For all His judgments were before me,
And from His statutes I did not depart.
I was also upright before Him,
And have kept myself from iniquity.
Therefore the L-rd recompenses me according to my righteousness,
According to my cleanness in His eyesight." (Samuel II 22:22-25; also Psalms 18:22-25)
By way of introduction…
Popularly known as the Song of David, this Haftara has the distinction of being recorded twice - at the end of the Book of Samuel, and, with minor variations, as Psalm 18.
The whole Haftara is a song of praise: when David dedicated to G-d 'the words of this song… after the L-rd had saved him from the hands of all his enemies and from the hands of Saul.' It contains five sections:
(a) The recounting of the desperate state of his very survival and existence during parts of his long and varied career: "For the waves of death encompassed me… in my anguish I called to G-d…" (ibid. 5-7)
(b) G-d's answer to David's prayer: at first His appearance terrifies him: "smoke went up from His nostrils, from His mouth came devouring fire." (ibid. 9). But the darkness of thunder turns to the brightness of lightening (ibid. 15), and G-d Himself rescues David from his perilous predicament: "He reached down from on high, He took me, He drew me out of the mighty waters. He saved me from my mighty foes, and my enemies, who were to powerful for me…" (ibid. 17-18)
(c) David recounts that G-d constantly saved him from his enemies. However he records that he himself deserved and was worthy of G-d's Divine intervention: "I was also upright before Him, and I have kept myself from iniquity." (ibid. 24)
(d) David recalls his that his own military successes: "I pounded them like the dust of the earth. I stamped and crushed them like the dirt of the streets" (ibid. 43) were only possible because of His backing: "The way of G-d is perfect… He is a shield to all those who take refuge in Him." (ibid. 31). David has risen to military and political stature as King of Israel: "Peoples of whom I know nothing serve me… paid me homage at the mere report of me." (ibid. 44-5). But he does not forget that his success was only possible because of His will and backing: "The L-rd lives! …exalted be G-d… Who gives me victory!" (ibid. 47)
(e) David gives his final, dramatic, and unconditional thanks to His Creator: "For this I publicly thank you - among the nations, and render Your Name in Holy Song." He concludes by expressing the faith that His help will continue throughout the generations: "He is a tower of salvation to His king, and He does kindness to His anointed one, to David and his descendants - for ever." (ibid. 51)
The actual setting for the Song of David is a point of discussion between the commentators. Rashi and the Radak give the simplest explanation - that he wrote it at the end of his life. This appears to fit in with simple context of the text: several verses before the song opens, the text states that David's men saw to it that he was no longer to go out to war 'so that the light of Israel should not be extinguished.' (Ibid. 21:17) And although it was virtually forty years after Saul's death, the desire for vengeance from the deposed House of Saul continued to plague him throughout his career, especially when times were hard - such as when Shimei ben Geira's attacked him during Absalom's rebellion (ibid. 16:6-8). However Abarbanel holds that the song was composed earlier in his career and that he regularly sang it on the numerous occasions G-d intervened and saved him from his enemies - the most dangerous being Saul.
Unlike the song of Deborah, the song does not give a poetic account of any one event in detail. Indeed, it does not specify any event in David's life. That is the beauty of the song. It is for all time, for all people who see the Hand of G-d rescuing them from distress. It is a record of David's personal feelings which he gave to Israel as a gift - to use as a prayer and as a consolation in a time of distress, and when tempted to lose all hope. Indeed, Abarbanel holds that David had this song - composed early in his career - on hand for recital on every occasion of personal salvation.
"He who seeks to meditate in solitude, he who seeks to pour out his anguished soul in fervent prayer - all of these will find it in the precise words with which to express the depths of their feelings." (Stone Edition of Deuteronomy, p. 204) All the more true at this anguished hour, when while writing this to the sounds of the booms of our current war against terror.
The third section of the song (above) contains the following words: "I was also upright before Him, and I have kept myself from iniquity." (ibid. 22:24) With those words, he states that he himself deserved, and was worthy of, G-d's Divine intervention.
How may that be reconciled with the story of how David came to marry Bathsheba (Samuel II: 11)? Really, a first-time reader of the narrative may well ask the following. If indeed King David had an overpowering physical urge for certain woman, sent her husband into the heat of the war with the deliberate intention that he should be killed, and then took his wife - how can we say his Tehillim? (Psalms) Indeed the narrative states what would seem to be obvious: that 'what David did was evil in the eyes of G-d.' (ibid. 11:27) David had broken the Seventh, and by proxy, the Sixth Commandment, against adultery and murder respectively. Far from being 'upright before Him', and 'keeping' himself from 'iniquity'.
Hints in the text lead us towards an approach to these issues. As well as David's declaration (above) that he had not 'departed wickedly from … G-d', David did not immediately identify Nathan's rebuke through the parable of the rich man taking the poor man's only lamb as reference to his virtual abduction of Bathsheba. Was it not obvious to David?
In addition, the Talmud (Shabbat 53a) declares that whoever says that David sinned is mistaken. It does not say that David did not sin, but it implies that the nature of David's sin would not be obvious to the casual reader.
Many explanations have been given by Talmudic and later authorities. Halachic ones include Uriah's already being liable to the death penalty for disregarding a royal summons (Sam II 11:7-12, as explained by Shabbat supra; see also Rambam: Hilchot Melachim 3:8) and Bathsheva's being retrospectively divorced Talmud: Ketuvot 9b, based on Samuel I 17:18). Moral ones include the maxims of 'the greater the person, the greater the evil inclination, (Talmud: Sukkah 52a) and Hillel's recommendation not to judge someone until finding oneself in the same circumstances (Talmud: Avot 2:5)
In addition it may be suggested that David was punished because of his inner motivation. This is elaborated below.
It was by no means the first time David obtained a wife following his own indirect involvement in the previous husband's death. The story of David and Abigail (Samuel I 25:2ff.) recounts Nabal's refusal to return hospitality to David's men, (note that by then David was already G-d's anointed), his indebtedness to Abigail for putting what he believed was the true version of the incident, and his gratefulness to the Almighty that He fought David's own cause and bought Naval's deserved death without directly involving him. Abigail was widowed and David married her.
Both Naval (ibid, e.g. v..38) and Uriah (above) were liable to the death penalty. And in both cases, the final judgments came from the Almighty. Nabal did not have to die from plague and Uriah may have well survived the front line. Yet the circumstances surrounding Uriah's death only, were seen as evil by G-d.
A comparison of personal motives shows that those behind Uriah death only were reprehensible. In David's mind, the bottom line was that Uriah had to die so that he could extricate himself from an extremely difficult Halachic and moral situation of the deepest personal interest and importance. Even though, no doubt, he wanted Divine justice to execute Uriah for justice's sake, he had an undeniable personal interest and desire that he should be disposed of.
That did not apply in Nabal's case. There, David could have obtained the goods and services requested by his company by force without Naval actually dying. David's interest was technical -- he wanted to see justice done for justice's own sake. Abigail was a 'separate, later account' - she came afterwards…
Such a distinction is illustrated by the story in the Talmud (Ketubot 105a) where a certain sharecropper of R. Yishmael b. Yose brought him his stipulated produce a day early. On that day, the sharecropper was due to appear before that Rabbi in a lawsuit. R. Yishmael refused to accept the fruit before the due date. He said that were he to do so he would be guilty of taking a bribe, which even applies when its aim is to ensure that the case is judged fairly. Subsequently R. Yishmael refused to try the case at all because the thought behind the gift was enough to preclude unbiased judgment. For the Torah (Deut. 16:19) declares that once a judge receives a bribe - (however small) - he could not try a case fairly even if he wanted to: 'For a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.'
In the case of David and Uriah, the 'bribe' was not the triviality of receiving rent in kind a day early. It was the combination of some of the deepest urges known to Man -- physical desire plus the need to extricate himself spiritually and halachically from adultery. The Tenach in introducing David states how he was selected by G-d because of his spiritual purity. In His rejecting Eli'av the eldest son of Jesse in favour of David, He declared to Samuel 'not (to) look at his countenance, nor the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for it is not as a man sees; for a man looks on the outward appearance, but the L-rd looks on the heart.' (Samuel I 16:7)
So in such circumstances, David would have had to refuse to pass judgment on Uriah because he had a personal interest in the outcome of his fate. The matter would have needed to be delegated to an unbiased authority to whom the issue would have been a technical, rather than a personal issue.
So King David was judged by G-d on his personal motivation. Even though his actual action may have been technically permissible (especially when seen in the light of the halachically retroactive divorce referred to earlier), he betrayed the inner purity which distinguished him from his brothers. This is what was seen as 'evil in the eyes of the L-rd' - not obvious to David, and requiring Nathan to elucidate his parable.
David did indeed keep the 'ways of the L-rd' but that was not enough. In being G-d's anointed, assuming leadership over His people required the highest degree of spiritual truth. As he allowed personal judgment to enter his decisions, he betrayed this required quality.
This should give a different sense to the aforementioned verse:
"Therefore the Lord recompensed me according to my righteousness,
According to my cleanness in His eyesight."
Righteous he was -- he hadn't done anything actually wrong. Clean in G-d's eyesight he was not -- He knew David's true motivations were unworthy of G-d's anointed. Thus he accepted his sentence from G-d "The sword shall never depart from your house because you despised Me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite." (Sam. II 12:10). David understood what he did wrong and said "I have sinned to G-d." Nevertheless, the sword continued to plague him until the end of his life and in several cases that sword was wielded by members of his immediate family - his eldest son's assassination, Absalom's, and later Adonijah's rebellions, the threatened split of his kingdom under Sheba ben Bichri…
Yet David made spiritual progress by realizing that on his level, he deserved what he got. And he put his trust in G-d., and He saved him every time. And David knew by the end of his life that not only he had been forgiven, but also blessed…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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