Thursday, April 4, 2013

Self-Pity, Responsibility, and David's Dancing

It's a troubling week of scriptural readings this week. The Torah portion, Shemini describes the deaths of two priests during their services to God. The Haftarah relates a similar story about a man named Uzzah who died while King David was transporting the Ark to Jerusalem. The story in the Torah seems somewhat easier to understand. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's two sons, seem pretty clearly to have done something wrong. They offered "strange fire". Just what that means is not so clear, but it was bad and they got punished because it was bad. In the Haftarah, the case of Uzzah is less clear. The Ark seems to slip and Uzzah reaches out to steady it. We are taught that his sin was to presume the Ark needed human hands to steady it as if the hand of God was not enough. But still, it is hard not to imagine being in Uzzah's place. Something seems about to fall, about to break, what do you do? You gasp and lunge to save whatever is about to break. It seems wrong someone should get punished for a natural reaction. I'm not sure I have an answer for why Uzzah dies but rather a suggestion for how to look at this story. Uzzah is not the main character of this story, King David is. And I think we are to look at the story through David's eyes. Throughout the story we see David wrestling with the responsibilities of leadership. Is he worthy to move the Ark? Is he acting the way a king should act? Is he acting for his own glory or for God's? These questions are implied or asked outright throughout the Haftarah. My suggestion is to consider Uzzah's death as David would have perceived it. As being his fault. He is reported to be distressed and afraid. And there is even reason to believe he was upset or angry with himself (by understanding verse 8 to be saying, "and David was angry towards David", vayichar l'David as opposed to the verse before when God gets angry where it is, vayichar ahf Adonai b'Uzzah, "and God became angered at Uzzah".) The good leader, or anyone in a position of responsibility, should on some level feel partly to blame, partly at fault, when people under their direction fail or make mistakes. But the person truly dedicated to their responsibilities will not wallow in self-pity or overrate their victimization. The good leader will make adjustments, make amends, and move on to do what has to be done, what is required of them. We see King David going through this process. Following Uzzah's death he leaves the Ark where it is (well, close by, at someone's house). David makes the incident about David. His pride, his fears, how he will be perceived by others - these win out even over a man's death and fulfilling God's job for David to do. Finally though, we see David take up his responsibilities and bring the Ark to Jerusalem. This happens when David sees the Ark bless the random man with whom David left it. It's not about being a king David sees, its about finishing the task. And in finishing it, David is filled with real joy for meeting his obligations to God and as a leader. And even when Michal, the daughter of King Saul, criticizes David for how he is singing and dancing in celebration of the Ark's arrival, David is not bothered, not hurt by it. He is fully engaged in doing what is right and not making it about himself. Does any of this explain why Uzzah died? Perhaps it doesn't. Or perhaps the text very subtly does. Perhaps Uzzah just died. Perhaps he was crushed by the falling Ark in a true accident. And perhaps the text, through its careful use of language is putting us into David's head, giving us David's take on what happened. As we have laid out above, it would fit the story of David's overall development and growth to see it that way. And so perhaps in the end Uzzah's death does turn out to be important. Because through confronting that death, David realized that even as king, it wasn't all about him. And that even when faced with setbacks and tragedy, the good leader does not give up (and certainly does not see himself as a greater victim than someone who literally died!) but addresses the mistakes, learns from them, and carries on. And in so doing comes to know a joy and satisfaction that come from a job well done. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

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