There are few things that I find more delightful than studying the dramatic stories of the Tanakh with my children. The characters are complex, the plot lines are thick and the stakes of our entire people often hang in the balance. Such study forges identity and can clarify values and principles that are eternal.
Therefore, there are also few moments more difficult than teaching my children stories of biblical characters who misbehave and seem to get away with it. Undoubtedly the most vexing character of this sort is King David, who, in his lust for another man’s wife, secretly sleeps with her and, when he cannot cover up the pregnancy that results from their encounter, arranges for the betrayed husband to be killed in battle. After a period of what seems like perfunctory mourning, David takes her as his wife and she bears him the son they conceived in sin. As if it were not sufficiently devastating to see the king of Israel behave in this way, the man whose name adorns so many of our psalms and prayers, our pain and confusion is compounded by the fact that he seems to pay no price. David’s monarchy is the eternal monarchy, his reign over Judah is never broken until the monarchy itself falls, and his name remains attached to all prayers for a future Restoration.
In fact, it is worse: King Saul has the monarchy torn away from him for what seem to be much lesser moral offences, the failure to completely wipe out the king and livestock of Amalek. What conclusion can the reader-and especially a child-possibly see other than a blessing for political power to conquer all? Saul was weak, perhaps even excessively compassionate; he must be deposed. David was decisive, defeating Goliath in a critical moment of national crisis; his sins are therefore excused.
How does one explain this — to a child, to a student, to yourself? One option is somehow to convey that our initial objections to David’s behavior are overwrought. Maybe his actions are simply part of the messy life of a king, “royal chamber talk” if you will, not nearly as bad as it might seem at first blush. This is an untenable option. We stood at Mount Sinai and were commanded to feel revulsion for adultery and murder. Indeed, as if anticipating the potential effort to minimize David’s wrongdoing, the Bible itself clarifies immediately: וירע הדבר אשר עשה דוד בעיני ה/”What David did was evil in the eyes of the Lord” (II Shmuel 11:17). Make no mistake, this is unacceptable behavior. A bright line is drawn here: God will not tolerate any whitewashing of David’s sin, and neither should we.
From here, of course, one can proceed in two directions. One could abandon David as irredeemably tainted and unworthy of his throne. This seems to have been the path of many good men of Israel at the time. When David faces a rebellion from his son, Avshalom, and must flee Jerusalem to save his life, he is bombarded by opposition:
שמואל ב טז, ה-ח
וּבָ֛א הַמֶּ֥לֶךְ דָּוִ֖ד עַד־בַּֽחוּרִ֑ים וְהִנֵּ֣ה מִשָּׁם֩ אִ֨ישׁ יוֹצֵ֜א מִמִּשְׁפַּ֣חַת בֵּית־שָׁא֗וּל וּשְׁמוֹ֙ שִׁמְעִ֣י בֶן־ גֵּרָ֔א יֹצֵ֥א יָצ֖וֹא וּמְקַלֵּֽל: וַיְסַקֵּ֤ל בָּֽאֲבָנִים֙ אֶת־דָּוִ֔ד וְאֶת־כָּל־עַבְדֵ֖י הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ דָּוִ֑ד וְכָל־הָעָם֙ וְכָל־הַגִּבֹּרִ֔ים מִימִינ֖וֹ וּמִשְּׂמֹאלֽוֹ: וְכֹֽה־אָמַ֥ר שִׁמְעִ֖י בְּקַֽלְל֑וֹ צֵ֥א צֵ֛א אִ֥ישׁ הַדָּמִ֖ים וְאִ֥ישׁ הַבְּלִיָּֽעַל: הֵשִׁיב֩ עָלֶ֨יךָ ה֜’ כָּ֣ל׀ דְּמֵ֣י בֵית־שָׁא֗וּל אֲשֶׁ֤ר מָלַ֙כְתָּ֙ תחתו תַּחְתָּ֔יו וַיִּתֵּ֤ן ה֙’ אֶת־הַמְּלוּכָ֔ה בְּיַ֖ד אַבְשָׁל֣וֹם בְּנֶ֑ךָ וְהִנְּךָ֙ בְּרָ֣עָתֶ֔ךָ כִּ֛י אִ֥ישׁ דָּמִ֖ים אָֽתָּה:
II Shmuel 16:5-8
As King David was approaching Bahurim, a member of Saul’s clan-a man named Shim’i son of Gera-came out from there, hurling insults as he came. He threw stones at David and all King David’s courtiers, while all the troops and all the warriors were at his right and his left. And these are the insults that Shim’i hurled: “Get out, get out, you criminal, you villain! The Lord is paying you back for all your crimes against the family of Saul, whose throne you seized. The Lord is handing over the throne to your son Avshalom; you are in trouble because you are a criminal!”
Shim’i sees no hero here. For him, David is a usurper, and an immoral one at that. He is a murderer, unworthy to the throne, and certainly less worthy than the previous king. We can only imagine the full narrative Shim’i must have told himself about David: a fraud who claimed credit for slaying Goliath (a feat that elsewhere seems to be attributed to Elhanan ben Yair – II Shmuel 22:19, I Divrei Ha-Yamim 20:5), a man who allied himself with the Philistines against Saul and who offered to accompany them into battle against Israel (I Shmuel 29), and, of course, a man who had a good man killed and took his wife from him.
This is one path forward: to cultivate a disloyal opposition having lost total faith in the system. We can teach our children to hate the Davids of the world, the men who commit immoral acts and get away with it, to resent them and to pray for their downfall. And we can thereby safeguard our values, making it clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that we will not and do not condone certain kinds of immoral behavior. Sometimes this is exactly the message we need to teach our children, and Jews have done this many times when they lived under tyrants and oppressors.
Calling Out Sin
The path of disloyal opposition, however, is not the Bible’s main message. Shim’i is condemned by David on his deathbed as he orders his son Solomon to hold Shim’i accountable for his attack on the monarchy. Instead, the Bible offers another model, through the mouth of the prophet Natan, a model that does not engage the political question of who ought to be king, one that accepts David’s kingship and dynasty, but that insists on calling out sin, demanding contrition and then finding a way forward. Natan comes to David and, through the parable of the rich man, the poor man and the latter’s little lamb, accuses the king of having done something terribly wrong. What follows are three critical elements to remember as we learn and teach the story of David:
First, Natan makes clear that David has sowed some of the seeds of his own destruction:
שמואל ב יב, ט-יב
מַדּ֜וּעַ בָּזִ֣יתָ׀ אֶת־דְּבַ֣ר ה֗’ לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת הָרַע֘ בעינו בְּעֵינַי֒ אֵ֣ת אוּרִיָּ֤ה הַֽחִתִּי֙ הִכִּ֣יתָ בַחֶ֔רֶב וְאֶ֨ת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ לָקַ֥חְתָּ לְּךָ֖ לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וְאֹת֣וֹ הָרַ֔גְתָּ בְּחֶ֖רֶב בְּנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן: וְעַתָּ֗ה לֹא־תָס֥וּר חֶ֛רֶב מִבֵּיתְךָ֖ עַד־עוֹלָ֑ם עֵ֚קֶב כִּ֣י בְזִתָ֔נִי וַתִּקַּ֗ח אֶת־אֵ֙שֶׁת֙ אוּרִיָּ֣ה הַחִתִּ֔י לִהְי֥וֹת לְךָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה: ס כֹּ֣ה׀ אָמַ֣ר ה֗’ הִנְנִי֩ מֵקִ֨ים עָלֶ֤יךָ רָעָה֙ מִבֵּיתֶ֔ךָ וְלָקַחְתִּ֤י אֶת־נָשֶׁ֙יךָ֙ לְעֵינֶ֔יךָ וְנָתַתִּ֖י לְרֵעֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁכַב֙ עִם־נָשֶׁ֔יךָ לְעֵינֵ֖י הַשֶּׁ֥מֶשׁ הַזֹּֽאת: כִּ֥י אַתָּ֖ה עָשִׂ֣יתָ בַסָּ֑תֶר וַאֲנִ֗י אֶעֱשֶׂה֙ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה נֶ֥גֶד כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְנֶ֥גֶד הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ:
II Shmuel 12:9-12
Why then have you flouted the command of the Lord and done what displeases Him? You have put Uriah the Hittite to the sword! You took his wife and made him your wife and had him killed by the sword of the Ammonites! Therefore the sword shall never depart from your House-because you spurned Me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite and making her your wife. Thus said the Lord: I will make a calamity rise against you from within your own house; I will take your wives and give them to another man before your very eyes and he shall sleep with your wives under this very sun. You acted in secret, but I will make this happen in the sight of all Israel and in broad daylight.
David’s sinful choices have changed the rules of the game. Those in his house and family will have learned that killing and murder can be a tool for disposing of stubborn challenges to one’s leadership and will see adultery as less than unimaginable. Once he has released certain forces into the world; he cannot so easily put the genie back in the bottle. In this sense, there is truly no going back from certain kinds of reckless behaviors. One cannot attack the vulnerable to attain power and then expect to be an effective champion of unity.
Second, Natan pulls no punches in denouncing David’s behavior and makes clear there will be consequences and punishment for what he did. David may be king, but he remains a sinner of the first order. His son from Uriah’s wife, Batsheva, must die. His future will be plagued with violence. Furthermore, he will be forbidden from building the Temple because he has spilled blood, generally in war, and perhaps specifically in the context of this heinous sin (see I Divrei Ha-Yamim 28:3). There are and should be consequences for David’s behavior, even if he is to be affirmed as God’s anointed and is the divine choice to lead the people. In this sense, there is no fully redemptive end to this story. God does not simply wave away his sin. We must teach our children that the same is true for our own leaders.
Third, and perhaps most important, the road forward for David is paved with his admission that he is wrong and has sinned:
שמואל ב יב, יג
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר דָּוִד֙ אֶל־נָתָ֔ן חָטָ֖אתִי לַֽה֑’ ס וַיֹּ֨אמֶר נָתָ֜ן אֶל־דָּוִ֗ד גַּם־ה֛’ הֶעֱבִ֥יר חַטָּאתְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תָמֽוּת:
II Shmuel 12:13
David said to Natan: “I stand guilty before the Lord!” And Natan replied to David: “The Lord has remitted your sin; you shall not die.”
Why exactly David can be released from direct punishment for these cardinal sins, we do not know. But we do know how: he expresses remorse, he issues an apology, and he is willing to be held accountable. Without this, there is no possibility of even the partial redemption that he enjoys. With it, there is the possibility of a monarchy that can serve the Jewish people and perhaps do enough good to overcome the evil that has infected it. This is surely one of the most important points one must make to anyone, child or adult, learning this story.
Maintaining Our Values
We have just been through an exhausting and difficult election. The President-elect is no King David: He is, to put it mildly, not a deeply religious man who composes and sings sweet songs to his Creator. And even King David himself, with these redeeming qualities, was uncompromisingly opposed by men like Shim’i, the son of Gera, as we hear some voices urging us to do now. Just as one can abandon David, one can abandon any leader whose actions are unconscionable and declare the entire framework of government to be illegitimate. But the President and Secretary Clinton have called upon the country to unite behind the new President with an open mind and prayers for success, and Jews through the ages have prayed for Czars and other deplorables who did far worse things than any elected American leader has ever done.
The model of Natan the prophet may be more helpful. Our responsibility, particularly as religious people guided by the values of the Torah, is not to have clairvoyance on what all the correct policy choices may be, nor is it to predict how a leader will act even before he has taken power. Instead, it is our responsibility, irrespective of how we voted, not to sweep sin under the rug. It is our responsibility, whatever our party, to make sure those in power understand that the way they speak either refines or corrodes our culture, beginning with words and leading not long after to actions. And we must insist on contrition and atonement for speech and actions that violate our deep values and the human dignity of others. Donald Trump said things and behaved in ways in this election that are simply shameful, beneath the dignity of all the people he insulted and his own. One can accept and even cheer the prospect of his potential to fix a political system while still insisting that these were grave sins, sins that will sow a measure of hatred and disarray, sins that have consequences, and sins that warrant apology, contrition and a desire to begin again.
When we think about explaining this election to our children and to ourselves, we are entitled to a range of political assessments and preferences. No one can see all the alternatives clearly and no one can claim with certainty to know what, of a given set of political alternatives, will bring a better future. But we can always know when people have sinned, have hurt others and must be called to account. Natan the prophet reminds us that guarding our values, making sure that future generations clearly know where we stand, never trades off of the more transient questions of politics and power. These are the days to honor that legacy and put it into action.