A King in Perplexity

[Melachim 1 1:1-31]


"And King David was elderly, advanced in years, and they covered him with clothes, but he could not become warm" (Melachim 1 1:1).  Amazing!  Was this a king's palace or an elderly home in such poor financial state that the heating system was not working properly?  Did King David reach a state of senility so that it was necessary to cover him?  Wasn't he able to dress himself?  The words of his servants which follow are even more startling: "Let a young virgin be sought for my master the king, and let her stand before the king and be his attendant, and let her lie on his chest so that my master the king becomes warm" (ibid. 2).  What a strange way to warm a holy king, whose life was filled with trials, and who climbed to the highest spiritual peaks. As the Psalms of David testify, his was an incomparable soul burning for Hashem. 

A parallel historical document tells us about the tireless efforts of this honored king, at precisely the same time in his life.  "When David was elderly and full of days, he made his son Shlomo king over Israel" (Divrei Hayamim 1 23:1).  It is extremely wise to be concerned about appointing one’s successor.  "David provided abundant materials before his death.  He called for Shlomo, his son, and charged him to build a house for Hashem, G-d of Israel" (ibid. 22:5-6).  These were not only political but also spiritual preparations: he gave the plans of the Temple to his son (ibid. 28:11), and arranged a list of tens of thousands of Levi'im, designating each of them for specific roles (chapters 23-27).  What is happening here? What exactly is the mental state of our holy King David?

Rashi, our great commentator, revealed the answer to this riddle through the words of our Sages (Pirkei De-Rebbe Eliezer, chapter 43): "When David saw the angel standing in Jerusalem with a sword in his hand, his blood chilled from fear" (Rashi to Melachim 1 1:1).  There is no issue of senility here – there is only a question of inner spiritual concern.  What led to the incident of the angel with the sword?  The Tanach relates that King David instructed Yoav, the commander of the army, to take a census.  Yoav tried to convince him that it was not necessary, and was in fact improper, "And Hashem, your G-d, will add many more to this Nation, a hundredfold, and the eyes of the king see.  Why then does my master the king desire this thing?" (Shmuel 2 24:3).  But the king gave in to his evil inclination and held fast to his command.  Yoav, as the commander of the army, obeyed and conducted the census.  "And there were eight hundred thousand soldiers who drew the sword in Israel and five hundred thousand men of Yehudah" (ibid. 9).  Blessed is Hashem, this is a good-standing army, but "David's heart was struck after he had counted the people.  And David said to Hashem: I have sinned greatly in what I have done" (10).  What was this fateful sin?  If this census had been necessary for a military purpose, it would have been permissible according to the Halachah.  But since the military did not see a need for it, it was clearly motivated by absent-minded militarism.  One must recognize the great merit of King David in establishing for us an army worth its name, and the fact that he transformed a tortured Nation into a great power, but "a man does not live by bread alone" and also not by an infantry alone.  There was a misplaced sense of priorities here which was dangerous.  "And Hashem sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time, and seventy thousand men died from Dan to Beersheva.  When the angel stretched his hand over Jerusalem to destroy it, Hashem relented of the evil, and said to the angel who destroyed the people: Hold back your hand…and David said to Hashem when he saw the angel striking the Nation and said:" Behold, I have sinned and I have transgressed, but what have these sheep done?" (ibid. 15-17).  And then, as our Sages graphically describe, the angel took his avenging sword, dripping with blood, and wiped it on David's clothing. This act caused him to be plagued by trembling for the rest of his life (Pirkei De-Rebbe Eliezer, chapter 43).  This explains why the king was distressed and immobilized.

At the end of his life, David completed all of his great activities: independence, a military, conquests, a strong national economy – almost everything that makes a strong nation. But it was still lacking a soul!  When the members of the court, which included some fools, saw their king worried and bothered, they concluded that he was simply cold, and if he married an amicable and exciting young woman, he would be revived him.  As is related in the Tanach, King David did not even bother to respond to them.  He floated high above these small politicians.  Nonetheless, he agreed that the young woman would serve the role of a new secretary - but nothing more: "And the young woman was very fair and she attended the king and served him, but the king had no intimacy with her" (Melachim 1 1:4).  Our Sages also reveal to us that this young woman much later became one of King Shlomo's wives (Sanhedrin 22a).

In any event, King David had concerns on a completely different level, and he dedicated his final days to activities important beyond measure, particularly to filling the Nation’s spiritual hole: choosing a successor, preparing for the building of the Temple, organizing the Levi'im, the law enforcers and the judges (Divrei Hayamim 1 23:4).  And, of course, delivering his great spiritual message to the Nation, in a major speech to "all of the princes of Israel, the princes of the tribes, the captains of the companies who served the king by divisions, the captains over the thousands, the captains over the hundreds, the stewards over all of the property…and with the officers, the mighty men and with all of the mighty soldiers…" (ibid. 28:1).  The great king, rich with life experience of closeness to Hashem, made a declaration which can be heard to this very day: "Observe and seek out all the commandments of Hashem, your G-d, so that you may possess this good Land and leave it as an inheritance to your children after you for eternity" (8).

He then turned to the entire assembly (ibid. 29:10) in order to bless Hashem and strengthen the faith of the Nation.  This is the section which we recite each morning in our prayers while standing, and with proper intention. It begins: "And David blessed Hashem in front of the entire assembly."