Where you stand depends upon where you’ve sat

Who was King David? Was he the young underdog against Goliath or the mighty warrior of battlefield prowess? Was he the abuser of power who attained Bathsheba or the righteous ancestor of the future messianic leader? Having spent the day with Michelangelo’s David in Florence this week, I was surprised to learn how the Renaissance associated David with the strengths of a more humanistic aesthetic. Could the most prominent author of prayers in our prayerbook (psalms of David) really be the leading symbol of secular artistry?

Who David was for you depends a lot on your aims and experiences. As with many matters, where you stand on this question has a lot to do with where you’ve sat.

This week’s Torah portions purposefully situates the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. The portions begin and end emphasizing Mt. Sinai (Lev. 25:1, 27:34) as the place from which God’s word emits. Why? Given that the Tabernacle had become the setting where Moses would meet God. Why bring us back to Mt. Sinai at the close of the Torah’s third book? Perhaps because the punitive consequences of betrayal are so harsh, God’s Torah seeks to ground us in the Sinai covenant. The word for covenant (brit) appears eight times – the biblical number signifying covenant – in the 26th chapter of the Leviticus. No matter how treacherous our ways or how unmoored we become, Sinai anchors us to navigate our way home. 

What Sinai does for us biblically, Jerusalem does for us historically. 

Ethiopian Jewry never thought often about the Land of Israel. But Jerusalem was everything to them. For thousands of years their emotional and spiritual temperature was measured with a Jerusalem thermometer. So when Israel was looking for a day to memorialize the 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who lost their lives during the treacherous thousand-miles journey to freedom, Jerusalem Day was the fitting day to do so. This Sunday we will celebrate and we will remember.

The eyes in Michelangelo’s David are shaped like hearts. David, Jerusalem’s founder, is depicted as innocent and loving. May the compassion so often associated with Jerusalem help us shift from the possessive and the political toward the prayerful and the poetic for all people of good faith.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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