A Rabbi’s Dark Side

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I teach Prophets (Shmuel Bet) to 7th grade girls and today we had a nice long discussion about arguably the most complex and controversial chapter- Perek 11- the topic of Dovid HaMelech (King David) and Batsheva. I first gave the girls just the basic text (with Rashi commentary) and a worksheet with 8 “fact” questions.

The story-line sounds something like this in case you aren’t familiar: King David spots a woman, Batsheva, bathing on a roof and finds her beautiful. He inquires about her and confirms she’s the wife of a soldier named Uriah who is away. King David summons Batsheva and they are intimate- and she gets pregnant. Batsheva tells the King of her pregnancy who orders Uriah home so he will “lie” with his wife and assume it’s his baby. Uriah refuses to go and instead lies at the palace gates saying there’s no way he can go home when the Jews are in battle. Dovid Hamelech gets Uriah drunk in the hopes that he will put aside his principles and enjoy his wife but no dice- he stays at the palace gates. Having no more option to cover up the pregnancy, King David has Uriah sent to the frontlines of a bloody battle where he is killed and Batsheva is a free divorcee available to marry King David. Perek (Chapter) 11 ends with God being “displeased” with the whole incident.

My worksheet contained a 9th trick question. I asked the girls for their opinions about Dovid HaMelech’s character and they unanimously had less than favorable words to describe him. This was, of course, all part of my evil plan as I then discussed all the reasons why Dovid’s actions were, at times, understandable:

  1. Dovid knew Batsheva was meant for him due to his Ruach HaKodesh (divine providence).

  2. Dovid  asked to be tested by Hashem (to prove his dedication to Him)

  3. Uriyah (Batsheva’s husband) was “mored d’malchus” – disobeyed the king and deserved capital punishment (death) according to Jewish law.

  4. Dovid didn’t kill him directly, rather set Uriyah up to be killed in war- a war Uriyah wanted to fight.

  5. Batsheva seduced Dovid.

  6. A Jewish principle: The size of a person’s righteousness corresponds to the size of his/her Yetzer Hara (evil inclination).

  7. Hashem is very midakdek (exacting) on a Tzaddik’s (righteous person’s) behavior.

(P.S. King David is punished with four severe decrees consequently) Each point above is a longer conversation and there’s a lot of sophisticated concepts that are not easy to understand. Part of me would prefer that we never know of this sordid affair. But apparently no one consulted me when writing Shmuel Bet as it’s plainly stated in the text that King David sinned.

Great people sin. Righteous people can make bad choices. I always remind my 5 year old that if he makes a bad choice, no bubble of greatness has popped. Each moment is its own entity and every choice in said moment defines us- for the moment. Our character now is a composition of millions of choices over the course of millions of seemingly small occasions. Judaism not only admits that the sages can sin, we write it in black & white and discuss it openly in order to learn.

Having said all that, we are supposed to trust these fallible rabbis an awful lot. Ethics of the Fathers preaches this in its first chapter that documents the chain of tradition beginning with Moses at Sinai. We are told to “make fences around the Torah” which empowers rabbis to safeguard us from getting dangerously close to sin. Most of the halachos (Jewish laws) we observe are rabbinical or have at least some rabbinical component.

I’ve seen so many people- particularly online- belittle rabbis as if the laws of Lashon Hara (negative/destructive speech) don’t apply when we’re typing. All rabbis sin. All rabbis are capable of evil. In no way does this dark side create an obstacle in guiding the Jewish people. In fact, I’d argue that a rabbi who has overcome temptations and developed himself into a person of integrity is far more capable then a “blank slate” rabbi- an impossibly sinless Jewish leader.

The key to greatness, I am so comforted to suggest, is weakness, sin, and failure.

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2 responses »

  1. Great post – but I would amend the last line slightly by adding, “and teshuvah.” Without the process of festival, weakness, sin and failure are merely weakness, sin and failure. Teshuvah transforms weakness to strength, sin to humble goodness, and failure thus transcends itself, becoming wisdom. Teshuvah is the key that unlocks that alchemy.

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