King David Contemplates a Bust of Death

This story that I wrote about King David is based upon a brief legend found in the Talmud, Tractate Makkot 10a.

When King David was already quite elderly, he spent his remaining days shuffling from his bed to the window of his palace then back to bed.  Decades of war, family strife, scandals, parental grief, running for his life from his own children, as well as extreme old age, had worn him down; his leonine features and prowess were now reduced to the near debility of a limping alley cat.

One day, as he sat by the window looking out over the passersby on the streets of Jerusalem, he overheard two people speaking:

“Honestly, when will the old man die already?  Ever since God forbade him from building the new Temple years ago, we’ve been forced to put the entire project on hold until his son, Solomon, becomes king.  We need to move on.  David ceased being an effective king quite some time ago, and Solomon needs to take over.  It’s rumored that he has a thousand head of livestock waiting to be offered as sacrifices when the building is finally dedicated.”

David’s first impulse was to do what he always did when he felt threatened: call out his soldiers to find the person challenging him and have him put to death.  However, the intervening years of suffering at the hands of others had blunted his sharpest edges with some humility and empathy.  In this latest phase of his life, David had become a devoted reader of Scripture; he found solace in what the poet, Robinson Jeffers, many millenia in the future, would call the honey of old poems. In particular, he found himself returning to the ones he had written while still a shepherd keeping watch over his flock on lonely hills near his family’s home;  to the ones he had scribbled on small parchments in the seconds between one war and the next palace intrigue; to the ones that poured out of him at his saddest and his worst.  Now, he closed his eyes and waited for the worst of his rage and bitter sadness to subside, because of those overheard words outside his window.  He turned to the scroll nearest to his bed and began to read quietly his songs to God that always brought him comfort.  Turning the right roll of the scroll repeatedly, he happened upon a small poem he had written as a young king:

Shir ha-maalot, L’David;  samachti b’omrim li beit Adonai neileikh.

A song of ascents, written by David: “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let’s go up to God’s house!’”

Strange, thought David, that he would have written this, especially when he was much younger.  Certainly, from early on in his career, he had wanted to build God a magnificent dwelling, patterned after the Mishkan, David’s ancestors’ desert sanctuary, but far grander and more elaborate.  Yet God had made it clear to him:

“Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in?…When your days are done and you lie with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own issue, and I will establish his kingship.  He shall build a house for My name…” (II. Samuel 7:5, 12, 13a)

Nathan, David’s court prophet and confidante, had speculated that God made this decision because the king already had too much blood on his hands.  God’s house, a place of peace and prayer, would need to wait until someone with firmer peace time credibility could build it.  So, why had David written about rejoicing when others told him they would be going up to God’s house?  At the time that he wrote it, it didn’t exist, nor would it exist in his lifetime; he knew that.

He drifted off into the midday sleep that embraces the very young and the very old. Arms infinitely and alternatively powerful and gentle embraced him, while outside his window he heard the voices of every Israelite on the street, “Old king, we love you, but it’s time for us to move on! Move out of the way, move out of the way. We need to go up to God’s house….” A sweet sadness now washed over him, a strangely soothing balm that insinuated itself between his body and those arms that rocked him, threw him in the air, caught him, and rocked him.  David looked up at God’s face, bathed in light just above God’s arms, and smiled, sighing in resigned contentment.  “I’ve done all I could, and only You know how sincerely, if so imperfectly, I’ve done it all.  They’re all calling me now to step aside; they need someone to lead them forward, and it’s Solomon’s turn to shoulder the burden.  I’m not angry, I’m just sad at the letting go of it all.”

And then David awoke.

He looked long at the words he had written during his young life.  Were they perhaps a prediction he had prophesied to  himself,  or perhaps a reminder that slipped from between the folds of his ambition-driven brain; a warning to himself that the time would come when he would have to step away, to step down, to retire his crown to another one, someone born to him, flesh of his flesh, but altogether new and different?

David smiled for what he surmised was the first time in a number of withering decades.  He spoke out loud, slowly, into the silence of his room, to God and to no one in particular. “I should be horrified by people’s callous impatience for me to die, but, You know… I’m not.  I’ve done all I can, I defended my brothers and sisters, our boundaries and our security.  The one thing I cannot give them, Your house, is what they need now.  Solomon will do that work now, in the finest detail.  Yet I will quietly reside in the texture of every stone brick, in the warp and woof of every embroidery, while my son offers up the people’s gifts to You.  He will be there, I will be gone, yet I will be there too.”

“David,” God whispered back to him, “You will be there too in the words you wrote.  Solomon could offer me a thousand burnt offerings and the savor will never be as sweet to me as those words of yours, the pearls of your heart that will spill from the lips of millions forever.”

At peace, David slept one last time.

We would be horrified if we heard someone wishing out loud for our demise, speaking about us as if we were mere broken objects to be tossed on a garbage heap; inevitable casualties of impending mortality and the world’s impatient tendency  to move on as we fade away;  this especially after so many years of feeling that we mattered, that we were vital. The human species is not so much homo sapiens, “Thinking Man,” as homo existentialis, “Death-Dreading Man;” unlike other species, we not only fear death instinctually, we think about and anticipate the loss of our place in the world through death.

The Talmud teaches that David knew that dread; not so much the dread of dying but of being pushed aside by the flowing river of human dismissiveness and forgetfulness.  And yet, let’s look again at what gave him comfort in his final hours.  He was strangely comforted that the people to whom he had mattered had grown sufficiently that they no longer needed him to hold their hands.  David entered the great paradox of parental love:  we matter so much to our children until we reach our mutual goal of making them strong enough that we no longer matter to them, at least not for their survival.  He was rightly comforted that his words, if not he himself, would live on in people through his psalms.  The next time you find peace in the words of the psalm, “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” consider that David wrote those words.  He lives in them and gives us life, even though he died thousands of years ago.

You and I should be blessed to live and matter vitally to our loved ones and the world until we are 120.  Yet, we must reach the same place that King David did, as did our loved ones who we remember throughout the year. They were indispensable to us in the sacred work of making themselves, as it were, dispensable, so that we could stand on our own two feet.  Their memories, their words, their actions, the good ones and the dark ones, remain paradoxically indispensable to us as we struggle to continue to stand on those two feet as grown ups every day.  As for them and us, their descendants, so too for us and our descendants. This is what King David learned.  It’s our lesson too.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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