Shiur #07: The Ethics of a Monarch

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #07: The Ethics of a Monarch


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



"[A prayer] of David... Guard my soul, for I am virtuous" (Tehillim 86:1-2).  Levi and Rabbi Yitzchak [explained this verse].  One said: "This is what David said before the Holy One, blessed be He:  ‘Master of the universe, am I not virtuous?  All the kings of the East and the West sleep until the third hour of the morning, but "I rise at midnight to praise you" (Tehillim 119:62).'" The other [sage] says: "This is what David said before the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Master of the universe, am I not virtuous?  All the kings of the East and the West have people sitting in groups to honor them, but my hands are dirty with blood, the sac of a fetus and the placenta, to permit a woman to her husband.  Not only that, but everything I do is checked with Mefiboshet my master.  I say to him: "Mefiboshet, my master, did I judge correctly? Did I condemn correctly?  Did I exonerate correctly?  Did I purify correctly?" — I was never embarrassed.'" (Berakhot 4a)


            Although David Ha-melekh prides himself on two different accounts in this aggada, it deserves mention that David also showed great capability to admit when he sinned.  His reactions after the sin of the census (Shemu'el II, Chapter 24) and after the sin of Bat Sheva (Tehillim, Chapter 51) reveal a personality quite capable of admitting fault.  Indeed, the very two causes of pride in this story indicate a basic humility often missing in royalty.


            What specific virtues does David exhibit in this gemara?  It seems that his early rising exemplifies great diligence, and his willingness to deal with practical halakhic questions shows that he was knowledgeable in Torah and employed that knowledge to help others; but Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (author of Seridei Eish, in Li-frakim, New Edition, pp. 394-396) explains that this entire gemara testifies to David's sterling humility.


            As Rav Weinberg explains, the other kings, who rise late, might not do so solely out of laziness; indeed, they could argue that the responsibilities of their offices place quite a heavy burden upon them, and they therefore truly need more rest.  After a late-night emergency security meeting, who could fault the monarch for rising later than the farmers and shoemakers?  Perhaps the delayed start of the monarch's day could be justified. 


            Yet David does not rely upon this reasonable argument, because it divides too sharply between the king and the commoner.  He refuses to see his own work as more important than the work of others, and he insists on rising at the normal time.  Thus, the first interpretation of David's virtue focuses on his humility.


            Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Ein Aya) adds one wrinkle to the previous idea.  He posits that a leader cannot tire himself out with activities that will prevent the fulfillment of his communal responsibilities; therefore, David should not have gotten up early if it would have made him too exhausted to function during the day.  However, the degree to which one finds a given activity to be tiring often depends upon one's attitude towards that activity.  Thus, had David not enjoyed his midnight prayers, this schedule would have exhausted him; since David, serving God out of love, found this early endeavor exhilarating, he had enough energy in reserve for a long day of work.  If so, this gemara also tells us something about the great poet of the Psalms and his enthusiasm for prayer.


            According to Rav Weinberg, the second interpretation of David's virtue also indicates his humility.  Kings deal with national issues on a very broad scale; issues relating to the nation's physical security, economic stability, social cohesiveness and the like dominate their daily routine.  David was no exception to this rule.  The biblical account has David involved in military endeavors, and Chazal (Berakhot 3a) add a focus on economic questions as well.  Our gemara conveys this emphasis on collective national life when it talks specifically about the groups of people who customarily honor a king.  


            However, those who deal with the big picture are liable to forget the plight of single individuals.  They view themselves as only dealing with the most important issues, as manifest on a national scale.  Such an approach, while understandable, often leads to a dulling of moral sensibilities and an indifference to the plight of individuals.  However, in this aggada, David's humility prevents him from falling into this trap, and he continues to deal with personal halakhic problems.  The same king who is concerned about national security is not above taking time to deal with issues of family purity.  This idea instructs us about humility and reminds the grand visionaries among us not to let their broader focus blind themselves to the needs of each particular human being. 


            Rav Weinberg adds a very insightful note: apparently, Jewish woman were not embarrassed to come before the king with their most intimate questions.  If the monarch had insisted on always emphasizing the distance between himself and the masses, it is hard to imagine that they would feel comfortable asking him such questions.  It must be that David's humility generated an atmosphere in which it seemed normal to ask him for help with the laws of Nidda.


            Rabbi Henokh Zundel of Salant adds two interesting points in his work Etz Yosef.  He points out that according to Jewish law, a king is not allowed to remain indifferent to his honor.  The need to demonstrate respect for the office of the monarchy makes it problematic for a king to engage in degrading behavior.  What allows David, in this aggada, to get his hands dirty with the messier aspects of Halakha?  It must be, clearly, that our gemara does not consider this behavior degrading.  A king should not dirty himself for mundane human purposes, but he certainly can for heavenly matters.  Such efforts honor the monarchy far more than they degrade it.


            He also notes that David's motivation is "to permit a woman to her husband."  It seems, in the aggada, that other rabbinic voices had been content to be stringent in these scenarios, which did not lend themselves to halakhic clarity.  David, on the other hand, takes further steps to try and see if he can render a lenient verdict.  This too reveals his royal compassion and indicates that Halakha is not content to simply be stringent every time a difficult question arises.  


            At this point, the reader might still argue that David shows a bit of haughtiness in his bold halakhic rulings.  However, the conclusion of the gemara indicates otherwise.  This mighty king feels responsible to check the correctness of each ruling with his teacher.  To convey how unusual this is, Rav Weinberg tells a story about Emperor Nero. (I have been unable to track down the exact source of this story, although I have found some similar accounts in Roman historians.)


            Nero was a man of diverse talents but had a poor singing voice; nevertheless, precisely for this reason, he wanted to hear lavish praise for his singing.  Despite his awareness of the truth, he waited to hear advisors praise him for the beauty of the vocal music he offered.  This made him much happier than the praise he actually deserved. 


            Such a tale reflects the norm in royal arrogance.  Our gemara, on the other hand, shows us that David is not interested in stressing his greatness and in divorcing himself from the common man.  In his midnight routine, in his helping ordinary individuals and in his confirming rulings with his teacher, we see the traits of a truly humble king.