King David the student and penitent: a Shavuot study.

This essay originated in a talk I offered at my synagogue, Chabad of Fresno, California, at midnight on Saturday, June 4th, 2022— 6 Sivan 5782. It is traditional for observant Jews to study and discuss the Torah all night long on the eve of the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, on Sinai, fifty days after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. We enjoyed two other lectures that night as well, there was a large and lively group, and our conversation lasted till half past four in the morning. A few hours later we were all standing together again, for the communal reading of the Ten Commandments. The essay deals with the Biblical and Rabbinic treatment of ethical and moral themes that are of perennial relevance: the importance of study and of friendship, and the relationship one ought to have with teachers and friends. The teachings and musings of our culture on those topics have developed over a span of more than three millennia. I have illustrated these themes with cases drawn from current events— from my own experience— that are, or I think should be, a warning to present-day society. For it is a society, in America certainly and also in much of the West generally, that in my view has strayed so far from its founding principles, which are rooted in large part in the Hebrew Bible, as to have abandoned them entirely.

1. Of Study.

Chatsot laila aqum le-hodot lakh ‘al mishpetei tsidqekha;
Chaver ani le-khol asher yere’ukha u-le-shomrei piqudekha.

“At midnight I will arise to give thanks to You for the judgments of Your righteousness;
I am a companion to all who fear You, and to those who keep Your commands.”

Psalm 119

Tractate Berakhot of the Babylonian Talmud, 3b f., relates that when King David retired in the evening to his bed he dozed lightly till midnight, when a wind would come and wake him by blowing through the strings of his harp, that hung from the bedpost. He would arise, compose praises of God, study Torah, and then receive his ministers and attend to the needs of the people of Israel. Midrash Tanchuma adds that schoolchildren studied Torah with him. This legend about how King David divided up his night parallels what b. Avoda Zara 3b tells us about how God spends His twelve-hour day: for the first three hours He studies Torah; for the next three He sits in judgment, moving from the throne of severity to the throne of clemency; for three more hours He feeds the world; and in the final three He teaches Torah to the children of Rabbis. The Master of the Universe used to spend that fourth quarter playing with Leviathan but since the destruction of his Temple He has not been in the mood for such amusements. I have studied these two narratives, and proposed a Classical source for the legend about the wind playing David’s harp, in J.R. Russell, “The Lyre of King David and the Greeks,” Judaica Petropolitana no. 8, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation, 2017, pp. 12-33.

From this charming story we understand, among other things, that King David, the author of many of the Psalms that themselves form a part of Torah and are nothing less than the core of our liturgy and worship, was a lifelong student and teacher of Torah. During this time of year, the summer, we study Mishna Avot (the aphoristic moral teaching often called Pirqei Avot, or in English the Ethics of the Fathers); and on Shavuot (Pentecost) proper, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on mount Sinai, we read the Ten Commandments. A passage in Avot, 6:2, brings the two topics, of Torah study and of the tablets given at Sinai, together: R. Joshua b. Levi said, Every day the still small Voice [of God](bat qol) goes forth from Mt. Horeb and makes a proclamation, saying “Woe to mankind for their contempt of Torah!” For a person who does not occupy himself in Torah study is called nazuf, “reprobate”, as it is written: “As a golden ring in the snout of a pig, so is a beautiful woman without discretion” (Proverbs 11:22, nezem zahav be-’af: these words, meaning “golden ring in the nose”, were seen by the Rabbis to encode the root of the Hebrew word translated as “reprobate”). And it is written, “And the tablets were the work of God and the writing was the writing of God, graven (charut) upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not charut but cherut (“freedom”), for you will find nobody free except the man who occupies himself with the study of Torah.

This passage stresses the difference between true freedom, which seen as a state of happy and willing service to our Father in Heaven, and the godless illusion of freedom, which can more often be an enslavement to manmade, arbitrary principles and the ever-changing demands and desires of the material world. Such a permanent state of insecurity, lust, and terror is chaos, and the human licentiousness it encourages reduces the noble creature man to something worse than any wild beast. For even the most savage non-human animal has no evil inclination and merely does what it was created to do. The values of Torah, then, are the foundation of human liberty and of good government, a matter we shall consider presently.

The third verse of chapter six of Pirqei Avot continues this theme of study and enlarges upon it, providing a concrete illustration. It suggests that one’s study of Torah should ideally be not in solitude but with a companion (chaver) for the purpose: he who learns from his fellow a single chapter or a single law or a single word of even a single letter must pay him honor, for so we find it with David, the King of Israel, who learned only two things from Achitophel but still called him his teacher, his companion, and his close friend (as Rabbinic texts interpret Psalm 55:13). I’ll discuss Achitophel in a moment, but let me first consider the matter of a chaver, a companion and study partner.

Avot 1:6 instructs: ‘aseh lekha rav, u-qeneh lekha chaver, ve-hevei dan et kol ha-adam le-khaf zekhut. “Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a companion, and incline the scale of judgment of every man towards favor.” The Kaliver Rebbe, a Hasidic leader from Hungary best known for his advocacy of remembering the losses suffered by Orthodox Jewry in the Holocaust, pointed out in one of his rare teachings on esoteric subjects that the gematria of the second half of the precept, to be inclined to judge every man favorably, is the same as that of the profession of faith, Shema‘ Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel! (The Lord is our God; the Lord is One only!)” In his superb, detailed commentary on Avot, R. Travers Herford found the two precepts— the first, about education, and the second, about trust— unrelated. While that is certainly possible in a compilation of aphorisms of ancient wisdom, let us suppose for a moment that our Chaza”l (our wise men, of blessed memory) have handed down a coherent text to us here, in which the latter half of the statement is related meaningfully to the former half.

Tractate b. Shabbat 127b illustrates the second precept with several anecdotes, in one of which it might outwardly appear that respected teachers were engaged in compromising activities, but moral men kept themselves from the temptation of jumping to negative conclusions. Their restraint was vindicated when it was established that the teachers were not only innocent, but in fact had acted with self-sacrificing virtue. The basic idea is, don’t automatically think the worse of people, especially teachers and friends, even if you’re tempted to. Such is, indeed, the Old French motto of the English crown, Honi soit qui mal y pense. “Let evil be to the one who thinks it evil.” The fact that one of the anecdotes is set in the context of teaching would suggest that the sages of the Talmud made a connection between the precept about teachers and study companions and the following precept about trust.

The two parts of the Mishnaic statement, then, are seen to be closely related. You should find yourself a teacher and a study companion: indeed that, Talmud Torah (“Torah study”), is the largest component of an observant Jew’s social life, the major source of companionship outside his family. Then, you should treat your teachers and friends with forbearance and trust, not malice and suspicion. That is the glue that holds human social relations together. I can, unfortunately, illustrate how the opposite, the destructive antithesis, of this principle works, from my own life experience.

For a quarter century I worked as a professor in a famous northeastern American university. Seven years ago, a devout, conservative Christian student there approached me to ask whether I might teach a reading course for him in Syriac. This language is a dialect of Aramaic in which many early Christian texts were written. Though I know some Syriac, it is not my field; but the faculty member actually responsible for Syriac had turned down the student, telling him he was too busy to teach him! Although I had a full schedule, I agreed to teach the reading course. My pupil and I embarked on a close reading of the Syriac version of an ancient and enigmatic cycle of psalms called the Odes of Solomon. The student, a devout member of one of the Eastern churches, was quite proficient in both Syriac and the Bible, and our class was as much a learning experience for me as for him.

One day my pupil told me he was going to Washington, D.C. for a long weekend to stay with his family: might we do a make-up of our class on the following Monday? My daytime schedule was very busy, so I suggested he come by my apartment at nine on Monday evening. We could read and drink tea. I lived a five-minute walk from campus: he came over, we studied the text, I served tea and cookies, and he went home.

Another student overheard this. She was an Armenian-American from southern California enrolled in my Armenian poetry class, and was proud of what she considered fluency in her ancestral tongue. As the term progressed, she expressed increasing annoyance and frustration that the poets used words she did not know and had to look up in the dictionary. This often happens when heritage students encounter the true complexity of a language they thought before college that they knew in its entirety. But her pique assumed the proportions of a sort of mania: once she fumed that they were doing it on purpose; and though I tried to choose easier poets for her to work on, it all became the teacher’s fault. She angrily dropped the course and wrote a rambling, defamatory “formal complaint” to the deans, mentioning that the student of Syriac had been invited to my home. The deans brought in the young man for an inquisition, pressing him to file a complaint accusing me of… sexual impropriety! He protested against their lurid and malicious imaginings and said that if anything I had gone beyond the call of duty to teach him in the first place and deserved thanks.

Undeterred and unchastened, these academic secret policemen then ordered him to report back to them on everything I said in class. He had refused to write the denunciation they wanted but was threatened with unspecified consequences if he declined to spy on me. He came to me and told me about it all, and we worked out a system of subtle gestures to exchange, so if I seemed about to say something the deans would not like, he could warn me. That way his reports would be both truthful and innocuous. I am reminded here of the parable of R. Nachman of Breslov, in which a king and his minister are warned that the whole world is going to become insane: each makes a little mark on the other’s forehead so that they can remind each other of what it was to be sane, that the new normal of insanity isn’t normal at all.

None of the above is at all unusual at American college campuses today. A few weeks ago a former pupil of mine, a professor at Princeton University, a dedicated teacher and one of the great Classicists and scholars of the humanities in this unhappy country generally, was fired from his tenured chair. His story, unlike mine, was all over the New York Times and the other American mainstream media: you can read the details yourself. I do not know whether or how he will be able to put his life back together again, after the travesty of justice that shattered it. In my case, not one academic “colleague” or “friend” raised so much as a peep in my defense: their cowardly, unmanly silence was in some ways the worst of it. If you find yourself in a place where there are no human beings, try to be one, Avot counsels us. Well, chaverim, I tried as long as I was able, to be a man in a place without decent men. But the Russians say, Один в поле не воин. “One man alone on the field is no warrior.” You can do only so much alone.

In the end, I retired and moved as far as I could get from the poisonous swamp the Ivy League has become. That was six years ago. At the time, administrators were still mostly settling scores with people they didn’t like: one might compare it to the random street violence perpetrated against Jews by brown-shirt thugs in the early Nazi period. Cases such as mine or my illustrious pupil’s are by now routine and are too numerous to keep track of. The academic Title IX office, begun ostensibly to protect people from abuse, then misused for vindictive purposes, now has become an end in itself, a death machine. American academia operates on a corporate model and requires productivity reports: accordingly, the entrenched, odious apparatus of Title IX and Human Resources and their ilk must destroy as many human beings as possible in order to fulfill their quotas and justify their existence. To pursue the analogy with Nazi Germany, murder at first was spotty and sporadic, but as the regime gained traction, mass murder was mechanized and became, not a tactic, but policy.

My comparison of academic degeneracy to Nazi barbarity is appropriate, and intentionally invidious. Wherever one encounters fascism, one inevitably sniffs that telltale anti-Semitic stench. Since my retirement, the student newspaper at my university has embraced boycott, divestment, and sanction against Israel; and the BDS coordinating committee of the Boston area has published a map targeting nearly every Jewish organization in Massachusetts— educational, medical, philanthropic, left wing, right wing, it doesn’t matter. Targeting, and inciting what? In a country where mass shootings are now a daily occurrence, do we really have to ask that question? In America? Really? As the former Lubavitcher Rebbe said when he got off the boat, “America’s no different.” At the end of the day, alas, it really isn’t; but it is enough for our purpose here to cite the above episodes as illustrations of what Mishna and Gemara, and the Shema Yisrael itself, aren’t, their opposites.

Let’s return to the question of a chaver, and the subject of king David. The verb used for acquisition of a companion and study partner, qanah, can also mean “purchase”, and it seems reasonable to infer from the choice of words that the matter is so imperative that you should be willing to pay money if need be, to find a friend. The classic commentary Avot de-Rabbi Nachman Ch. 8 explains that a man should get such a companion, a fellow Torah student, for himself to eat and drink with him, study Torah and Mishnah with him, sleep in the same place, and reveal to him all his secrets, the secrets of the Torah, and the secrets of worldly things. That is, their friendship should be so deeply rooted in mutual trust that the conversation arising from their study can touch upon any topic in a completely open and honest way.

Now, this is the kind of treasured friend and close study companion that King David thought, or wished, he had in one of his advisors, a young and intelligent man named Achitophel. But Achitophel was never a close or trustworthy friend and their relationship ended in a spectacular act of betrayal by the royal counselor. In Psalm 55 David bitterly laments Achitophel’s smooth speech and the cunning treachery it concealed, and wistfully recalls, in verse 15, asher yachdav namtiq sod, be-veit Elokim nehalekh be-ragesh, “how together we would sweeten secrets and go, overwhelmed by emotion, to the house of God.” That is how I understand the passage. Rashi translates be-ragesh differently, probably more accurately, as “in the throng (of the nation)”: either way, it is a vivid and nostalgic picture of earlier, happier days.

The Psalms tell us a great deal about David’s turbulent life, his inner emotions, and above all, his devotion to God; but the most detailed Biblical source for the life and career of David, including the role of Achitophel, is the book of Samuel. Midrash and Aggada richly embroider the narrative: the legend about how David spent his nights belong to this corpus of traditional lore, which is the subject of numerous studies and compilations, from the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik’s large Sefer ha-Aggada to Bin Gorion’s still bigger Mimekor Yisrael and finally to Louis Ginzburg’s seven-volume Legends of the Jews.

Pirqei Avot says David learned only two things from Achitophel, but was grateful even for those. There is some uncertainty as to what they were; but in the fourth volume of Ginzburg are recorded two instances where Achitophel taught David something. Once when the Ark could not be moved, Achitophel was expected to offer helpful advice but remained silent, so David prompted him with the remark that a man who has a remedy and withholds it is cursed. Achitophel then suggested that the Ark would move, were a sacrifice to be offered at each step. He could have made the task easier simply by explaining that the Ark had been put on a wagon, but must instead be carried by hand. The second time was when David was digging the foundations of the Temple that his son, Solomon, was later to build. He struck a potshard at the depth of 1500 cubits and wanted to lift it. You can’t do that, warned the broken but helpful piece of pottery, because I cover the waters of the abyss. David lifted it anyway, and up bubbled the waters to engulf and drown the world.

Again, the king’s advisor was silent till David issued yet another menacing (and, as it turned out, prophetic) pronouncement: “Whoever knows how to stem the tide and fails to do it, will strangle himself one day.” Only then did Achitophel grudgingly write the Name of God on the shard and toss it back down into the deep foundation pit. The flood duly receded, but then it kept on receding till David realized that he now had the opposite problem to a flood on his hands— a severe drought. If the waters continued to drop, the soil of the world would become parched and arid. He recited the fifteen Songs of Ascents, and the waters beneath the earth rose, returning to their appointed place; they stopped there and the balance of Creation was restored.

Various traditions offer guarded praise of the reluctant minister. Achitophel’s predictions accorded with the Urim and Thummim, he knew things about astrology, he had only good dreams, and his wisdom was handed down to the great philosopher Socrates. But there was a problem. He was wise without being pious— one might put it, intelligent but amoral. As a civil servant he was a self-centered opportunist whose motives were driven by egotistical pettiness. In the episode of the Ark’s refusal to move, he withheld the best and simplest counsel and offered second-rate advice that was a costly solution to the problem— and even that, only under duress, because he resented having been passed over for a promotion shortly earlier. On the Temple Mount, he stayed silent till threatened again, because he figured that David would be killed by the rising waters and he would become king himself. One might wonder what sort of kingdom would be left by a second deluge for Achitophel to rule, and that is assuming he himself survived the flood. One cannot help but see in the shortsighted, venal character of Achitophel the prototype and forerunner of our present-day brilliant, amoral civil servants, the kleptocratic oligarchs and unprincipled politicians who think only of themselves and are so shortsighted as to risk nuclear war. Were they to survive the destruction of the earth, there would be only a frozen, radioactive wasteland for them to pretend to govern from their subterranean bunkers with their now-useless billions.

2. Of Repentance.

Samuel chronicles the rebellion of David’s son Absalom against his father. Achitophel took the side of the rebellious prince and the Malbim on Psalm 55:13 tells us he offered Absalom two pieces of advice: first, to take the concubines of David, and, second, to pursue the latter by night and kill him. Unlike the two counsels offered David, these were direct, ungrudging, and savage in their cold-blooded cynicism. But David had a spy, Hushai, in Absalom’s camp who offered the rebellious son bad advice calculated to tickle the young man’s ego but doom his cause. Achitophel saw the stratagem but could not dissuade Absalom from taking the bait, hook, line, and sinker. Knowing he had bet on the wrong horse and would have to suffer the consequences, he abandoned Absalom, rode home and hanged himself— fulfilling David’s earlier prophecy. Christians regard Achitophel as the Judas of what they call the Old Testament and we call the Hebrew Bible. One of the works of the English poet John Milton excoriating corruption thus features Achitophel. Judas Iscariot was a disciple of Jesus who betrayed his master, received thirty pieces of silver as pay for his treachery, was overcome by remorse, and then hanged himself. Achitophel seems not to have felt particular regret: his suicide seems rather to have been evasion of capture and a probably more painful execution by the victorious David.

It is remarkable that David valued learning so keenly that he humbly esteemed what little he gleaned from so base a man as Achitophel. Even an individual who turned out to be a political snake might be, for a time and in limited ways, a study companion and even a teacher. Later, to be sure, David feels the betrayal by Achitophel with raw pain and begs God to take revenge; but David’s great, generous, open-hearted, trusting capacity for love and friendship also comes through in the story. To charut and cherut one might add chavruta (“study group”), since David is the Biblical prototype of all future lovers, the very personification of the quality of a true friend. The friendship of David’s ancestors, Ruth and Naomi, has become proverbial, as has his own friendship with Jonathan, the son of King Saul. David’s own name means “beloved”, he has more personal relationships than any other figure in the Bible, and the word “love” is used more often in his context than in any other.

The power of love and its force of impulsion, physical desire, is a kind of vulnerability and a source of danger. One of the darkest episodes of David’s tumultuous life exemplifies this. According to 2 Samuel 11, David once saw a young woman bathing. He inquired about her and was informed that Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, a soldier in David’s own army. David had Bathsheba brought to him, and she became pregnant. The king summoned Uriah and told him to go home and visit his wife: the Torah commands such a furlough for a warrior on the eve of a battle, and that was the convenient pretext to make it look like Uriah was the father of the child in Bathsheba’s womb. But Uriah, a good soldier, preferred to stay with his unit. (The Rabbis argue that Uriah issued Bathsheba a write of divorce before going off to battle. That made David’s marriage to her technically legal. I see no reason to attempt to ameliorate David’s offense or to vindicate him. More to the point, neither did David himself seek such an excuse.) Since that cover story failed, David tried a deadlier ploy. He gave Uriah a letter addressed to the latter’s commanding officer, Yoav, ordering that Uriah be placed in an exposed position on the front line of the coming battle. Uriah, all innocent and unknowing, handed over his own death warrant to Yoav, and was killed in the line of duty. Now David could marry Bathsheba, the woman he had adulterously violated and then widowed.

It is a shattering tale, and the vigorous Hebrew prose of the book of Samuel is unvarnished in the telling. It fell to the Prophet Nathan to confront the king with the grievous sin he had committed, the thing that “was evil in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Sam. 11:27). But how was this to be accomplished? The reader of Shakespeare knows Hamlet’s line, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Nathan, in a way like Hushai with Absalom, dangled bait on a hook. Rather than accuse David outright, the prophet told him a heart-wrenching parable— a little drama in effect— about a rich man who killed and ate a little ewe-lamb whom a poor man had raised like his own child. David, emotionally engaged by the story, angrily declared that the murderer deserved to die. His conscience was caught in the trap of the play. You are the man! retorted Nathan.

What Nathan did was more than a stratagem to corner David. A legal accusation is a simple, static statement, almost impersonal, against which the intellect can formulate a defensive response. Indeed, the foundation of Anglo-American law is the presumption of innocence, though today allegation is enough to convict if you are on the wrong side of the ideological divine. But a parable? That’s not a formula. It is a story in which living characters move in a landscape. It reaches beyond casuistry. The parable engages the listener’s imagination: he visualizes the setting and supplies facial features and voices to the characters. The parable connects not only to the mind, but the heart of its audience, and its effect is emotional, sometimes spiritual. Teaching through parables was the essence of the earthly career of Jesus, a Jew and Torah scholar. In more recent times, teaching through stories has been a central feature of Hasidic teaching and life. The Hasidic tale is one of the glories of Jewish literature, thought, and faith. And in a way Nathan was an early Hasid. For he sought, not only to elicit from David a confession of guilt, but to quicken his soul and to open the way for him to teshuva. This Hebrew word, which we shall return to presently, is generally rendered in English as penitence or repentance; and one who performs teshuva, a ba‘al teshuva, is a “penitent”. That is the English translation of the title of the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Der Baltshuve. The Hebrew actually means “a master of return”, and return to God and Torah and Yiddishkeit— Jewishness in all its richness— isn’t intended to be just the sackcloth and ashes of an ascetic penitent, it’s a joyful homecoming that everybody celebrates.

To return to Nathan’s confrontation with the King and the latter’s unqualified admission of guilt. At this point an Ancient Near Eastern potentate, or one of our politicians, would probably arrange for Nathan and anybody else who knew about the affair to have a fatal accident. But David, though a human being with a man’s vulnerabilities, and a political ruler who shed a great deal of blood, was not that kind of man. He was not merely a king, but God’s anointed (mashiach), the ancestor of the Messiah. We need to pause and consider the special nature of his kingship. In the prayer of Hannah at Shiloh at the very beginning of the book of Samuel, the King and Messiah of Israel are mentioned, long before Israel has had either. Hannah’s son, the Prophet Samuel, was to remind Israel later on that we already have God as our king (and Tanya, the core text of Chabad Hasidism, affirms this, asserting that God alone is King). He warns the Israelites, who say they want to be like everybody else and have a king, that earthly kings will do things like drain the treasury to buy war horses and draft young men into the army— a foreshadowing of Uriah’s fate, perhaps.

The matter has been foreseen by our teacher Moses, with all the pertinent details. Deuteronomy 17:15 and following says: “When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you will inherit it and you will live in it, and you will say, let me put a king over myself like all the nations which are all around me. As far as appointing one goes, you will place over you a king that the Lord your God will select: from among your brothers you will establish him as king over you. You will not be able to put a man over you who is an alien, who is not your brother. Only he is not to multiply horses for himself, and he is not to return the nation to Egypt in order to multiply horses— and the Lord said to you, you will never go back on this road again.” (Were one to suppose, as academic scholars do, that the Torah was not given on Sinai, but was a compilation of different texts written at different times; and that prophecy is not foresight but mere eloquence— this passage might then appear not to anticipate, but rather to reflect, the text of Samuel. And this in turn would buttress the secular, text-critical argument that Deuteronomy has Zoroastrian material of the Median period in it, and perhaps that it develops Moses as a character analogous in many respects to Zarathustra. Such an approach would date the fifth book of the Pentateuch therefore to the seventh century BCE, after the fall of Nineveh. Deuteronomy is largely the first-person narrative of Moses, even as the Avestan Gathas are recited in the first person by Zoroaster; and aspects of the literary eloquence of the Biblical book, and its stark division of good and evil, set it apart from the rest of the Pentateuch. It all makes for an enticing philological thought-experiment.)

What does the Deuteronomic expression mean, Lo tosifun la-shuv ba-derekh zeh ‘od, “You will never go back on this road again”? The literal meaning, of course, is that once freed by God from slavery, Israel is not to reverse its tracks of the Exodus, to go back to Egypt to do more forced labor, this time in order that their king be able to finance his burgeoning military budget. But let’s consider a deeper possible meaning of the word derekh, “road”. In English one speaks of ethics as a way, that is, a road, of life. You travel down a road, and the Hebrew word for a Torah law, halakhah, means, literally, “walking”. (In the ancient Avestan language of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the word shyaothana-, a (good) action, means literally, likewise, “going”. There is a late Avestan maxim, Aevo panto yo ashahe; vispe anyaesham apantam “There is one path, and it is that of righteousness; all of the others are non-paths.” The affinity of ideas is striking, and in this instance there may be a relationship, unlike in the case of Deuteronomy. For the Babylonian Talmud was composed, transmitted, and written down over centuries in Parthian Arsacid and Sasanian Persian Mesopotamia— that is, during the reign of two successive Zoroastrian dynasties.)

The Torah therefore seems to be hinting at more— that the path, the way of life, the trajectory, the road we’re traveling is a completely different one, with a different destination from that of the bumper-to-bumper six-lane freeway of the lost souls heading downward into Egypt and all its forty-nine basements and sub-basements of defilement. Even if you’re driving in the opposite lane of that freeway, Egypt’s still the reference point. The whole vector has to change completely.

Tiny Biblical Israel was meant to be different from the vast and powerful empires that surrounded it. The Greek “father of histories”, Herodotus, admired the Persians for their data or “law”— the origin of Hebrew dat “religion”— to which all were subject. Ancient Greeks were proud of Athenian isonomia, the principle of equitable application of the law. Law was a paramount consideration for them in the evaluation of a culture: Greek writers praised Moses above all as a nomothetes, “lawgiver”. But the Father of Histories relates an incident when the Great King of the Persians wanted to violate an existing law. His clever vizier, thinking fast, replied that yes, it is indeed a law, but there is another law that says the Great King can do whatever he wants. David, by contrast, as king of Israel cannot do whatever he wants. When his predecessor Saul was crowned, Samuel dictated to him the mishpat melukha, the rules governing kingship. Those rules emanate from God through His Torah and His Prophets, not from arbitrary human invention and still less from the whim of an autocrat. The political scientist Eric Nelson in his book The Hebrew Republic argues that the political philosophers who framed the institution of constitutional monarchy in Britain were inspired primarily by the Hebrew Bible, not by Greece and Rome. Thus, David must answer to Torah law. He is guilty. He admits his sin. And only then is he… forgiven. Though Bathsheba’s first child is to be stillborn, her second will be none other than King Solomon, whose name incorporates the word for “peace”: he is the embodiment of reconciliation, of teshuva accepted, and the king who will build the Temple whose foundations his father David laid down. And David’s seed is never to perish: the Messiah will be born of it, of the house of Jesse.

David sang his teshuva in Psalm 51. It opens with a plea to be cleansed of deeply ingrained sin, of the propensity to evil that one inherits at birth. David pleads with God to return him to joy, and promises to help other sinners learn from his experience, to be a teacher for them. How different he is here from the stingy, vainglorious Achitophel! Then he pronounces the verse with which we begin the Shemone ‘Esrei, the standing prayer of Eighteen Benedictions that since the destruction of the Temple has been the liturgical replacement of the sacrifice, that is recited in silence in emulation of Hannah, who offered a prayer so powerful it transcended sound, at Shiloh: Hashem sefatai tiftach u-fi yagid tehilatekha, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare Your praise.” David declares that God does not want mere material sacrifices and burnt offerings. Does the Creator of Heaven and Earth need such food? No, David explains, sacrifice must emerge from a contrite spirit and a broken heart. Then will God welcome the sacrifices we bring to him.

Chapter 26 of Liqqutei Amarim (“Selected Discourses”), the Tanya (“Teaching”) of the Alter Rebbe, Admo”r Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, explains that genuine contrition over one’s sins, bitterness of soul and a broken heart, is what leads to true joy, since ‘al yedei ze nishbara ruach ha-tum’a ve-sitra achra u-mechitsa shel barzel ha-mefaseqet beino le-aviv she-ba-shamayim “through this the spirit of impurity is shattered, and the Other Side [i.e., the inclination to evil], and the iron partition that stands as a division between a man and his Father Who is in Heaven.” The text continues, Ve-ze hu ta‘am ha-pashut le-tiqqun ha-Arizal lomar mizmor ze achar tiqqun chatsot qodem ha-limud kedei li-lmod be-simcha amitit “And this is the simple reason why R. Isaac Luria of blessed memory instituted the recitation of this Psalm [51] after the midnight office [of mourning the destruction of the Temple], before the study [of Torah], in order to learn with true joy.”

There is a famous and very old Hasidic parable, a version of which is related in the book Degel Machane Efrayim of R. Ephraim of Sudilkov: The King had an only son whom he loved very much but who had wandered away. The King erected a tall mechitza, a barrier, with a moat in front of it and growling bears and roaring lions to guard it. Few dared swim the moat, and those who did were afraid of the animals, and those who were not scared by the animals thought the wall was too tall to climb, and those who scaled it were then distracted by pots of gold on the other side and went away without going on to look for the King. But the prince stood there and was not afraid of any of it, he only desired to return to his father, and his heart broke and he cried out the words of Psalm 22, Keli, Keli, lama ‘azavtani, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then he saw that the wall was just an illusion, achizat ‘einayim: he jumped lightly over it and returned to his father, who said, My darling son, I did all this for you and knew you could accomplish the task. (Christian readers will be struck by the only son’s choice of the Psalmodic verse as the cry to his father: Jesus called out the same verse on the cross. One recalls that Hasidism emerged in the forests of Russia and its old and deeply rooted Orthodox Christian faith, whose rural forms feature venerated holy men, ecstatic practices, and mystical prayer.)

This is the partition of iron of which the Tanya speaks, of which David himself speaks when he says in Ps. 18 and in 2 Sam. 22:30 u-v-Elokai adaleg shur “and with my God I leap a wall.” Spiritually this is the quantum jump that teshuva makes possible, which overturns the false perception of reality: what had seemed to be as solid and impenetrable as a prison wall of iron shatters; the castle that seems to separate us from home reveals itself as illusion. What was evil was an instrument of transformation out of which comes the true good. Making this happen is the great work, and as I’ve heard fellow motorcyclists say, “It’s all good, brother.” It is the work of building the Master of the Universe, our Father in Heaven, dira be-tachtonim, a place to live down here in this lower world.

We began this discussion, you’ll recall, with the pun of our Sages about the engraved tablets of the Ten Commandments: they were engraved, charut, but one should read cherut, freedom. I think we’ve touched on some important points about what real freedom is, and good government, and justice. But I’d like to close by mentioning a Hasidic commentary on the engraved, charut, tablets. Because there’s a twist, a transformative new, enriching insight in what Chassidus, Hasidism, has to say about it. Isn’t there always! The book Ha-Yom Yom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in its entry for the 17th day of the month of Tammuz explains that the pun refers only to the first set of the tablets, which God Himself wrote. Moses smashed those when he beheld the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. Then, as we know, Moses had to inscribe a second set of tablets himself, which he presented to the chastened nation, who had previously enjoyed a state in proximity to the Divine at Sinai but who were now ba‘alei teshuva, penitents, people setting out on the road of return. You would think these tablets were lesser than the ones that glowed with the fire that flowed from the Divine finger— but you’d be wrong there.

Rather, the Rebbe explains, the second set were superior. Unlike the first, they were endowed with Halakhot, Midrash, and Aggadot— the aggregate of the Oral Law, of the exegesis of Torah studied and applied here in this lower world. Moreover, he teaches, powerful as revelation from on high is, revelation that comes as a result of human effort from within one’s mind and soul, the process of teshuva, is more lasting— and that is why the second set of tablets survives, hidden within the vaults of the Temple Mount, waiting.
Yitsmach purqaneh ve-yeqarev Meshicheh, may the Holy One, Blessed be He, cause His redemption to flower and may He bring close His Messiah;

שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו ותן חלקנו בתורתך

May the Holy Temple be built speedily, in our days; and grant our portion in Your Torah.

3. Epilogue.

Many years ago, when I was beginning my career as a scholar and teacher, I read the Armenian translation of the Arabic version of a Buddhist story from Central Asia in the Saddharmapundarika sutra, the Lotus Sutra of the Good Law, about a religious teacher who is leading people to enlightenment. It is a long road and he creates phantom cities along the way to boost their spirits, to make them think they have achieved something even though they are still far from their goal. It is a bit like those rest stops on the interstate where children can get out and go to the bathroom, and eat and drink something, and play during a long family road trip, the kind where the question “Are we there yet?” from the back seat becomes more and more insistent.

The Moslem version of the story, which is faithfully retold in an Armenian translation of the year 1000, introduces some changes. A wise man, the leader of a caravan that has been sent by the Caliph to find the sealed casks in which king Solomon had imprisoned the demons, encounters a city all of brass (Armenian pghndze k‘aghak‘, Arabic madina al-sughra) in the wilderness. Its builders had reveled in their technical prowess: they themselves are long dead, but the mechanical robots they constructed still work. The place is not a rest stop, as in the Buddhist tale, but a solemn reminder of transience and death; and when the caravan reaches its goal, obtains the casks, returns to Damascus, and opens them before the Caliph, the confined djinn leap out and say “Repentance, O Messenger of God!” The Caliph had perhaps expected to learn astrological secrets, magical spells, or similar vain rubbish. Confronted by the simple, stark spiritual truth instead, he abandons his throne to become a Sufi, an ascetic mystic seeking closeness to God.

Many centuries later the tale reached my ancestors in the little towns of the forests and plains of Poland and Russia, and Chassidus, drawing, it would seem, also on the Christian parable of the Prodigal Son (which was also borrowed by the Lotus Sutra and recounted at another point in the text) reshaped the tale of repentance, with the King and His only Son separated by the illusory mechitsa shel barzel, the wall of iron, that I shared with you. The estranged son, seized by the brokenhearted longing to return to our heavenly Father, no longer sees barriers and temptations, and his fervent prayer carries him home.

But as you have seen, the use of a story to inspire teshuva goes back to a thousand years before the present era, to king David and the prophet Nathan; and the reason there was a prophet who could teach and a king who was ready to learn was that they both lived by the Torah, revealed hundreds of years before them at Sinai, on this very day— Torah that God wrote two millennia before the creation of the world.

For some four decades I worked in secular academia. It was once a virtuous calling, but as you have seen, that is no longer the case: it would not be an exaggeration to say that the higher learning in America has largely degenerated into a totalitarian enterprise. As my place in that decaying system became increasingly isolated and perilous, I turned to the work of an imaginative writer from California, Philip K. Dick. His writing is generally classified as science fiction, but the literary establishment relegates many imaginative and insightful writers to that category, which it judges to lack high seriousness. A prophet is seldom recognized in his own country; similarly, it took the French poet Baudelaire’s esteem to elevate Edgar Allan Poe to the Parnassus of respectability back home. France likewise burnished the reputations and revoked the exile of H.P. Lovecraft and P.K. Dick.

Philip K. Dick experienced a revelation in the early 1970s, a series of mystical visions that lasted a month, which he subsequently set down in writing in a work of 9000 pages, the Exegesis. He was shown that much of what is presented to us in modern America as reality is in fact a thing called the Black Iron Prison, a mechanism of captivity of body and soul that rose around us when the Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70 and then overcame the Zealot fortress of Masada three years later. The Roman Empire never really ended, Dick’s vision instructed him: it has persisted in new guises, in such institutions as the Vatican and the Soviet Communist party. The Black Iron Prison, temporally, is not just an enclosed space but a vector, a direction of travel. We generally travel on that wrong road, the six-lane freeway all the way down to the darkness of Pharaonic Egypt, if you like. Dick wrote that the only way to be free, to follow the good, and to see things as they really are is to go back in time to the starting point— for him it was the fall of Masada in 73 CE— and strike out on another vector altogether, the road of God’s truth that leads to a place that he was told in his vision is named the Garden of Palm Trees. His later novels explore details of the vision and its teachings, especially VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and Radio Free Albemuth. VALIS is an acronym for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System”, which, I suspect, is not too different from that other transmitter of Divine revelation, the three Kabbalistic sefirot of Chokhma-Bina-Da‘at (Wisdom-Understanding-Knowledge) whose acronym is Chabad.

California, where I live, is a place of cosmic beauty and endless possibilities, but it is also a place of corruption: the machinery of propagandistic illusion in Hollywood to the south and the Big Tech cartel of left-totalitarianism to the north of this modest country town. Still, it is also where Philip K. Dick dreamed and wrote. The imaginative genius Ursula Le Guin, whose novels The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Dispossessed are American classics every citizen should read, was the daughter of San Francisco anthropologists. Los Angeles was the home of Ray Bradbury, who never learned to drive but whose Martian Chronicles took me as a teenager into outer space. Allen Ginsberg, who made Kaddish a word in American English, wrote Sunflower Sutra on the shore of San Francisco Bay. In this universal predicament of exile and loss, California is still a place of sci-fi visionaries and poet-prophets who see that the mechitsa shel barzel, the Black Iron Prison, is something you can jump over, or tear down. That is why I came to live the later years of my time on earth here, to break free of the Black Iron Prison and to start walking towards the Garden of Palm Trees, with my chaverim on the journey.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.