The bold voice of silence
Save me, O G‑d, for the waters threaten to engulf me . . .
I am wearied by my calling out, and my throat is dry. I’ve lost hope in waiting . . .
More numerous than the hairs on my head are those who hate me without reason . . .
Must I then repay what I have not stolen?
Mighty are those who would cut me down, who are my enemies without cause . . .
O G‑d, You know my folly, and my unintended wrongs are not hidden from You . . .
It is for Your sake that I have borne disgrace, that humiliation covers my face.
I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons.
Out of envy for Your House, they ravaged me; the disgraces of those who revile You have fallen upon me . . .
Those who sit by the gate talk about me. I am the taunt of drunkards . . .
Disgrace breaks my heart, and I am left deathly sick.
I hope for solace, but there is none; and for someone to comfort me, but I find no one.
This psalm describes the life of a poor, despised and lowly individual, who lacks even a single friend to comfort him. It is the voice of a tormented soul who has experienced untold humiliation and disgrace. Through no apparent cause of his own, he is surrounded by enemies who wish to cut him down; even his own brothers are strangers to him, ravaging and reviling him.
Amazingly, this is the voice of the mighty King David, righteous and beloved servant of G‑d, feared and awed by all.
King David had many challenges throughout his life. But at what point did this great individual feel so alone, so disgraced, and so undeserving of love and friendship?
What caused King David to face such an intense ignominy, to be shunned by his own brothers in his home (“I have become a stranger to my brothers”), by the Torah sages who sat in judgment at the gates (“those who sit by the gate talk about me”) and by the drunkards on the street corners (“I am the taunt of drunkards”)? What had King David done to arouse such ire and contempt? And was there no one, at this time in his life, who would provide him with love, comfort and friendship?
This psalm, in which King David passionately gives voice to the heaviest burdens of his soul, refers to a period of twenty-eight years, from his earliest childhood until he was coronated as king of the people of Israel by the prophetSamuel.
David was born into the illustrious family of Yishai (Jesse), who served as the head of the sanhedrin (supreme court of Torah law), and was one of the most distinguished leaders of his generation. Yishai was a man of such greatness that the Talmud (Shabbat 55b) observes that “Yishai was one of only four righteous individuals who died solely due to the instigation of the serpent”—i.e., only because death was decreed upon the human race when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge at the serpent’s instigation, not due to any sin or flaw of his own. David was the youngest in his family, which included seven other illustrious and charismatic brothers.
Yet, when David was born, this prominent family greeted his birth with utter derision and contempt. As David describes quite literally in the psalm, “I was a stranger to my brothers, a foreigner to my mother’s sons . . . they put gall in my meal, and gave me vinegar to quench my thirst.”
David was not permitted to eat with the rest of his family, but was assigned to a separate table in the corner. He was given the task of shepherd because “they hoped that a wild beast would come and kill him while he was performing his duties,”2 and for this reason was sent to pasture in dangerous areas full of lions and bears.3
Only one individual throughout David’s youth was pained by his unjustified plight, and felt a deep and unconditional bond of love for the child whom she alone knew was undoubtedly pure.
This was King David’s mother, Nitzevet bat Adael, who felt the intensity of her youngest child’s pain and rejection as her own.
Torn and anguished by David’s unwarranted degradation, yet powerless to stop it, Nitzevet stood by the sidelines, in solidarity with him, shunned herself, as she too cried rivers of tears, awaiting the time when justice would be served.
It would take twenty-eight long years of assault and rejection, suffering and degradation until that justice would finally begin to materialize.
Why was the young David so reviled by his brothers and people?
To understand the hatred directed toward David, we need to investigate the inner workings behind the events, the secret episodes that aren’t recorded in the prophetic books but are alluded to in Midrashim.4
David’s father, Yishai, was the grandson of Boaz and Ruth. After several years of marriage to his wife, Nitzevet, and after having raised several virtuous children, Yishai began to entertain personal doubts about his ancestry. True, he was the leading Torah authority of his day, but his grandmother Ruth was a convert from the nation of Moab, as related in the book of Ruth.
During Ruth’s lifetime, many individuals were doubtful about the legitimacy of her marriage to Boaz. The Torah specifically forbids an Israelite to marry a Moabite convert, since this is the nation that cruelly refused the Jewish people passage through their land, or food and drink to purchase, when they wandered in the desert after being freed from Egypt.
Boaz and the sages understood this law—as per the classic interpretation transmitted in the “Oral Torah”—as forbidding intermarriage with convertedmale Moabites (who were the ones responsible for the cruel conduct), while exempting female Moabite converts. With his marriage to Ruth, Boaz hoped to clarify and publicize this Torah law, which was still unknown to the masses.
Boaz died the night after his marriage with Ruth. Ruth had conceived and subsequently gave birth to their son Oved, the father of Yishai. Some rabble-rousers at the time claimed that Boaz’s death verified that his marriage to Ruth the Moabite had indeed been forbidden.
Time would prove differently. Once Oved (so called because he was a trueoved, servant of G‑d), and later Yishai and his offspring, were born, their righteous conduct and prestigious positions proved the legitimacy of their ancestry. It was impossible that men of such caliber could have descended from a forbidden union.
However, later in his life, doubt gripped at Yishai’s heart, gnawing away at the very foundation of his existence. Being the sincere individual that he was, his integrity compelled him to action.
If Yishai’s status was questionable, he was not permitted to remain married to his wife, a veritable Israelite. Disregarding the personal sacrifice, Yishai decided the only solution would be to separate from her, no longer engaging in marital relations. Yishai’s children were aware of this separation.
After a number of years had passed, Yishai longed for a child whose ancestry would be unquestionable. His plan was to engage in relations with his Canaanite maidservant.
He said to her: “I will be freeing you conditionally. If my status as a Jew is legitimate, then you are freed as a proper Jewish convert to marry me. If, however, my status is blemished and I have the legal status of a Moabite convert forbidden to marry an Israelite, I am not giving you your freedom; but as a shifchah k’naanit, a Canaanite maidservant, you may marry a Moabite convert.”
The maidservant was aware of the anguish of her mistress, Nitzevet. She understood her pain in being separated from her husband for so many years. She knew, as well, of Nitzevet’s longing for more children.
The empathetic maidservant secretly approached Nitzevet and informed her of Yishai’s plan, suggesting a bold counterplan.
“Let us learn from your ancestresses and replicate their actions. Switch places with me tonight, just as Leah did with Rachel,” she advised.
With a prayer on her lips that her plan succeed, Nitzevet took the place of her maidservant. That night, Nitzevet conceived. Yishai remained unaware of the switch.
After three months, Nitzevet’s pregnancy became obvious. Incensed, her sons wished to kill their apparently adulterous mother and the “illegitimate” fetus that she carried. Nitzevet, for her part, would not embarrass her husband by revealing the truth of what had occurred. Like her ancestress Tamar, who was prepared to be burned alive rather than embarrass Judah,5 Nitzevet chose a vow of silence. And like Tamar, Nitzevet would be rewarded for her silence with a child of greatness who would be the forebear of Moshiach.
Unaware of the truth behind his wife’s pregnancy, but having compassion on her, Yishai ordered his sons not to touch her. “Do not kill her! Instead, let the child that will be born be treated as a lowly and despised servant. In this way everyone will realize that his status is questionable and, as an illegitimate child, he will not marry an Israelite.”
From the time of his birth onwards, then, Nitzevet’s son was treated by his brothers as an abominable outcast.6 Noting the conduct of his brothers, the rest of the community assumed that this youth was a treacherous sinner full of unspeakable guilt.
On the infrequent occasions that Nitzevet’s son would return from the pastures to his home in Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), he was shunned by the townspeople. If something was lost or stolen, he was accused as the natural culprit, and ordered, in the words of the psalm, to “repay what I have not stolen.”
Eventually, the entire lineage of Yishai was questioned, as well as the basis of the original law of the Moabite convert. People claimed that all the positive qualities of Boaz became manifest in Yishai and his illustrious seven sons, while all the negative character traits from Ruth the Moabite clung to this despicable youngest son.
Anointing King David
We are first introduced to David when the prophet Samuel is commanded to go to Beit Lechem to anoint a new king, to replace the rejected King Saul.
Samuel arrives in Beit Lechem, and the elders of the city come out to greet him, nervous at this unusual and unexpected visit, since the elderly prophet had stopped circulating throughout the land. The elders feared that Samuel had heard about a grievous sin that was taking place in their city.7 Perhaps he had come to rebuke them over the behavior of Yishai’s despised shepherd boy, living in their midst.
Samuel declared, however, that he had come in peace, and asked the elders, and Yishai and his sons, to join him for a sacrificial feast. As an elder, it was natural for Yishai to be invited; but when his sons were inexplicably also invited, they worried that perhaps the prophet had come to publicly reveal the embarrassing and illegitimate origins of their brother. Unbeknownst to them, Samuel would anoint the new king of Israel at this feast. All that had been revealed to the prophet at this point was that the new king would be a son of Yishai.
When they came, Samuel saw Eliav (Yishai’s oldest son), and he thought, “Surely G‑d’s anointed stands before Him!”
But G‑d said to Samuel, “Don’t look at his appearance or his great height, for I have rejected him. G‑d does not see with mere eyes, like a man does. G‑d sees the heart!”
Then Yishai called Avinadav (his second son), and made him pass before Samuel. He said: “G‑d did not choose this one either.”
Yishai made Shammah pass, and Samuel said, “G‑d has not chosen this one either.”
Yishai had his seven sons pass before Samuel. Samuel said to Yishai, “G‑d has not chosen any of them.”
At last Samuel said to Yishai, “Are there no lads remaining?”
He answered, “A small one is left; he is taking care of the sheep.”
So Samuel said to him, “Send for him and have him brought; we will not stir until he comes here.”
So he sent for him and had him brought. He was of ruddy complexion with red hair, beautiful eyes, and handsome to look at.
G‑d said: “Rise up, anoint him, for this is the one!” (I Samuel 16:6–12)
The Small One, Left Behind
As Samuel laid his eyes on Yishai’s eldest son, he was certain that this was the future king of Israel. Tall, handsome and distinguished, Eliav was the one whom Samuel was ready to anoint, until G‑d reprimanded Samuel to look not at the outside but at the inside.8
No longer did Samuel make any assumptions of his own, but he waited to be told who was to become the next king. All the seven sons of Yishai had passed before Samuel, and none of them had been chosen.
“Are these all the lads?” Samuel asked. Samuel prophetically chose his words carefully. Had he asked if these were all Yishai’s sons, Yishai would have answered affirmatively, that there were no more of his sons, since David was not given the status of a son.
Instead, Yishai answered, “A small one is left; he is taking care of the sheep.” David’s status was small in Yishai’s eyes. He was hoping that Samuel would allow David to remain where he was, out of trouble, tending to the sheep in the faraway pastures.
But Samuel ordered that David immediately be summoned to the feast. A messenger was dispatched to David who, out of respect for the prophet, first went home to wash himself and change his clothes. Unaccustomed to seeing David home at such a time, Nitzevet inquired, “Why did you come home in the middle of the day?”
David explained the reason, and Nitzevet answered, “If so, I too am accompanying you.”
As David arrived, Samuel saw a man “of ruddy complexion, with red hair, beautiful eyes, and handsome to look at.” David’s physical appearance alludes to the differing aspects of his personality. His ruddiness suggests a warlike nature, while his eyes and general appearance indicate kindness and gentility.9
At first Samuel doubted whether David could be the one worthy of the kingship, a forerunner of the dynasty that would lead the Jewish people to the end of time. He thought to himself, “This one will shed blood as did the red-headedEsau.”10
G‑d saw, however, that David’s greatness was that he would direct his aggressiveness toward positive aims. G‑d commanded Samuel, “My anointed one is standing before you, and you remain seated? Arise and anoint David without delay! For he is the one I have chosen!”11
As Samuel held the horn of oil, it bubbled, as if it could not wait to drop onto David’s forehead. When Samuel anointed him, the oil hardened and glistened like pearls and precious stones, and the horn remained full.
As Samuel anointed David, the sound of weeping could be heard from outside the great hall. It was the voice of Nitzevet, David’s lone supporter and solitary source of comfort.
Her twenty-eight long years of silence in the face of humiliation were finally coming to a close. At last, all would see that the lineage of her youngest son was pure, undefiled by any blemish. Finally, the anguish and humiliation that she and her son had borne would come to an end.
Facing her other sons, Nitzevet exclaimed, “The stone that was reviled by the builders12 has now become the cornerstone!” (Psalms 118:22)
Humbled, they responded, “This has come from G‑d; it was hidden from our eyes” (ibid., verse 23).
Those in the hall cried out in unison, “Long live the king! Long live the king!” Within moments, the once-reviled shepherd boy became the anointed future king of Israel.
King David would have many more trials to face until he was acknowledged by the entire nation as the new monarch to replace King Saul. During his kingship, and throughout his life, up until his old age, King David faced many ordeals.
King David possessed many great talents and qualities which would assist him in attaining the tremendous achievements of his lifetime. Many of these positive qualities were inherited from his illustrious father, Yishai, after whom he is fondly and respectfully called ben Yishai, the son of Yishai.
But it was undoubtedly from his mother that the young David absorbed the fortitude and courage to face his adversaries. From the moment he was born, and during his most tender years, it was Nitzevet who, by example, taught him the essential lesson of valuing every individual’s dignity and refraining from embarrassing another, regardless of the personal consequences. It was she who displayed a silent but stoic bravery and dignity in the face of the gravest hardship.
It is from Nitzevet that King David absorbed the strength, born from an inner confidence, to disregard the callous treatment of the world and find solace in the comfort of one’s Maker. It was this strength that would fortify King David to defeat his staunchest antagonists and his most treacherous enemies, as he valiantly fought against the mightiest warriors on behalf of his people.
Nitzevet taught her young child to find strength in following the path of one’s inner convictions, irrespective of the cruelty that might be hurled at him. Her display of patient confidence in the Creator that justice would be served gave David the inner peace and solace that he would need, over and over again, in confronting the formidable challenges in his life. Rather than succumb to his afflictions, rather than become the individual who was shunned by his tormentors, David learned from his mother to stand proud and dignified, feeling consolation in communicating with his Maker in the open pastures.
She demonstrated to him, as well, the necessity of boldness while pursuing the right path. When the situation would call for it, personal risks must be taken. Without her bold action in taking the place of her maidservant that fateful night, the great soul of her youngest child, David, the forebear of Moshiach, would never have descended to this world.
The soul-stirring psalms composed by King David in his greatest hours of need eloquently describe his suffering and heartache, as well as his faith and conviction. The book of Psalms gives a voice to each of us, and has become the balm to soothe all of our wounds, as we too encounter the many personal and communal hardships of life in galut (exile).
As we say these verses, our voices mesh with Nitzevet’s, with King David’s, and with all the voices of those past and present who have experienced unjustified pain, in beseeching our Maker for that time when the “son (descendant) of David” will usher in the era of redemption, and true justice will suffuse creation.
|1.||Translation taken from The Living Nach, published by Moznaim.|
|2.||Siftei Kohen, Vayeishev.|
|3.||See I Samuel 17:34–36.|
|4.||The story and concepts in this chapter are based on Yalkut HaMachiri, as well as Sefer HaTodaah (section on Sivan and Shavuot). See also an interesting English rendition in the bookDon’t Give Up, pp. 187ff.|
|5.||See Genesis ch. 38, and Midrashim and commentaries on that chapter.|
|6.||In the verse in the psalm where David says he was a “stranger” to his brothers, the Hebrew word for stranger, muzar, is from the same root as mamzer—bastard, illegitimate offspring.|
|7.||Commentaries of Radak and Abarbanel to I Samuel 16:3.|
|8.||A short while after this coronation feast, David was instructed by his father to visit Eliav at the battlefield. A war with the Philistines was imminent, and Eliav lashed out in anger at David. This tendency to anger disqualified Eliav now from the throne. (This event occurred after David was anointed as king. However, according to the commentaries, it is possible that they didn’t understand the implications of the anointing, assuming that Samuel had designated David as a new student in his school of prophecy. Though this was an honor, and an act that would validate David’s lineage, only once David actually became king over the entire nation did his brothers realize his true greatness.)|
|10.||Bereishit Rabbah 63:8.|
|11.||Midrash Tanchuma, Va’eira 6.|
|12.||The Hebrew word in this verse for “builders,” bonim, is the same root as the word for “sons.”|