Author Archives: admin

Tashlich: Waters of Satan

As a child I wondered how shaking out our pockets by the River Thames meant could possibly help to spiritually purify us? While a verse in Michah (7:19) hints to the idea as God “will return and grant compassion, hide our iniquities and cast (v’sashlich)all of their sins into the depths of the sea.” Tashlich is still shrouded in mystery and wonder.

Rashi (d. 1105) writes  that the Geonim (589 CE to 1038 CE) would plant beans such as Egyptian Ful or other kitniyot two to three weeks before Rosh HaShannah. On erev Rosh HaShannah once it had sprouted they would wave it around their heads and say ‘zeh tachas zeh – this one instead of that one, zeh chalifasi – this is my exchange, zeh temurosi – this is my substitute’ (Shabbos 81b Hai Parpisa). It appears to be remarkably similar to the kapporos we perform shortly before Yom Kippur. Yet the last part of Rashi notes that once the sprouted beans had been waived seven times, they would throw them into the river.

The earliest record which refers directly to Tashlich is the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov Moelin, d. 1427) who writes that after the festive meal on Rosh HaShannah it was the custom to go down to the rivers or the sea to throw our sins into the deep waters (Sefer Maharil Laws of Rosh HaShannah 9).

The Rema also draws on a Midrash (Tanchuma Vayeira 22) which explains a deeper aspect to Tashlich. The Midrash states that when Abraham went with Isaac to perform the Akeidah, the Satan (accusing Angel) blocked his way with a river. Undeterred, Abraham entered the river and struggled on until the water reached his neck, at which point he cried out to God and was saved (see also Yalkut Shimoni Vayera 99).

The meaning behind this is very profound. The role of the Satan is to ensnare a person to sin. He can then take the evidence of this transgression to the Heavenly court for prosecution. The Gemara in fact relates the Yetzer HaRa (wicked, self serving inclination), the Satan and the Malach HaMaves (Angel of Death) to the same metaphysical force designed to test and indict us should we fail (Bava Basra 16a).

The Satan’s use of water is also significant as water absorbs and assimilates whatever is put into it. Abraham faced annihilation by entering the river and yet displayed tremendous faithfulness and loyalty to HaShem’s Word by continuing his mission.

On Rosh HaShannah we take the very symbol used by the Satan against our first forefather and empty the crumbs from our pockets – the remnants of our own indiscretions and spiritual failures – and throw them into the water to dissolve into nothing. While the Satan would aim to destroy us through our sins, we must be willing to do our best to continue undeterred despite the ordeals the Satan may throw at us. Even when we’re unsuccessful, provided that we are willing to learn from our mistakes, HaShem will dissolve our transgressions away, guiding us to an even greater connection with Him.

Shaul wages war against David

Summary: Saul plotted with his servants and his son Jonathan to kill David. Yet Jonathan loved David and forewarned David of the growing danger. While Jonathan reasoned with his father not to hurt David, Saul’s hatred grew stronger. He sent messengers to kill David in his house, but was tipped off by Michal who deceived Saul’s hit men allowing David to escape. David fled to Ramah where Samuel lived. Saul attempted to have David arrested there but subsequent groups of messengers were unable to as they began to have prophesies there. Saul himself travelled to Ramah and also began to prophesise in front of Samuel saving David from immanent capture.

A deeper look: As Saul plotted to kill David, his son Jonathan tried to reason with him to spare David’s life. Jonathan decided to investigate to see if his father was resolute in his aspiration to see David killed. He reminded his father that David had saved the Jewish people from the Philistines and in particular from Goliat (Goliath). Saul pledged that David’s life was safe and David returned to play his sweet music for the melancholy king.

Saul had hoped that at some point David would be killed fighting the Philistines, so after David returned again victorious, his mood soured (Samuel I 19:8-9). As was playing his soothing music, Saul suddenly lunged at him with a spear. David managed to escape and fled the palace.

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (d. 1344) noted that David was in the middle of playing music when Saul tried to strike. He attacked David in such a way that he caught David off guard; the spear was sure to kill him. Yet miraculously, David was able to move away at the last moment.

Rabbi Moshe ben David (d. 1777) points out the source for this miracle. When Saul originally swore to Jonathan that he would not kill David, Saul said חַי יְקֹוָק אִם יוּמָת, ‘As God lives, he will not die’. He should have said חַי יְקֹוָק אִם “אַמִיתָּנוּ” ‘As God lives, I will not kill him’. Rabbi Valle explains that the use of the passive voice was because the oath was not in fact Saul’s, but God’s speaking through Saul. David’s primary quality was that he recognised the Source of his salvation was God alone (see Psalms 27:1 and ibid. 20:8) and God once again replied in turn.

David and Jonathan

Summary: Following the victory over Goliath and the Philistines, David and Jonathan become close friends and King Saul appointed David as commander over all the soldiers. When he came back from successive victories, the women would sing praises to David which would also disparage Saul’s more modest success. Saul became jealous of David and plotted to end him. Yet his plans failed and David married Saul’s daughter Michal. With ever more success on the battlefield, David’s reputation grew while Saul’s jealousy and anger burned.

A deeper look: While Saul’s jealousy and hatred towards David burned inside him, he couldn’t dispatch with David himself. Saul offered his eldest daughter Merav to David as a wife on condition that David would fight for Saul against the Philistines. Saul’s proposal was however, a pretext to put David in harm’s way in the hope that the Philistines would eventually overcome him (Samuel I 18:17).

David immediately queried his own suitability to become the king’s son-in-law (ibid. 18).  Rabbi David Kimchi (known as the Radak, d. 1235) notes that David was genuinely concerned; he saw his victory against Goliath as an act of God’s might, not a personal triumph worthy of some special reward. Yet events took an interesting turn. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 19b) reports that according to some opinions, there was some deficiency in the kiddushin (process of betrothal) carried out by David. Merav was ultimately married off to a man called Adriel the Mecholatite (ibid. 19). Yet we are further told that Michal, Saul’s younger daughter loved David and so Saul arranged that they should marry (ibid. 20).

Saul thought that at least by being married to her and pledging to fight the Philistines, David would ultimately die in battle. Rabbi Shabbsai Sheftil Weiss explains that Saul was of the opinion that the original Kiddushin with Merav had worked and so David was already technically married to Merav. If so, it was forbidden for David to marry Michal, for there is a Torah prohibition against marrying two sisters (Leviticus 18:18). Saul hoped that this sin would be enough for the Satan to accuse David in the Heavenly court, causing him to fall at the hands of the Philistines (Mishbetzot Zahav).

Saul’s mistake was thinking that the original Kiddushin with Merav had worked. In truth, it had never held and so David was well within his rights to marry Michal who would play a critical role in protecting David and guiding him on a straight path.

 

David and Golias

Summary: The Philistines gathered to wage war with the Jewish people putting forward their ultimate soldier, Goliath to taunt his opponents to fight him. Saul was very frightened and his fear spread to the rest of his camp. In the meantime, Yishai asked his son David to take provisions to the camp.

When he arrived he heard Goliath cursing God and the Jewish people and also saw the fear that had spread throughout the Jewish army. David immediately volunteered himself to fight Goliath, even refusing to wear Saul’s armour. He confronted Goliath and killed him by firing a stone at Goliath’s head. The Philistines fled when they saw that Goliath had been slain.

A deeper look: The Mishnah teaches that when the Jewish army went to war, the Kohen who led them (see Deuteronomy 20:2) would recite the Shema in order to invoke its special merit with God. Goliath approached the army every morning and evening (Samuel I 17:16) and goaded them to find a man willing to fight him (ibid. 17:8). The Gemara understands that when Goliath approached them every morning and evening, it was to try to distract the Kohen from saying Shema and remove this merit from the people. Furthermore, the taunts to find a man to fight him referred to fighting God himself (Sotah 42b).

When David heard the curses against God and the desecration of His name he volunteered himself to fight. He refused to wear Saul’s armour in order to show the people that it was God who would deliver them, not the might of man (Samuel I 17:47). When David’s stone penetrated Goliath’s forehead, he fell forwards rather than backwards (ibid. 17:49). This miracle was to ensure that the mouth that had defiled God’s name would become filled with dirt (Midrash Tehillim 18). David’s victory allowed the Jewish army to rout the Philistines into submission.

Yet this victory did more than just punish the Philistines. David was now a celebrated hero and would marry Saul’s daughter, Michal. Saul however developed a burning jealousy towards David which would taint his latter years and define his ultimate downfall.

The rise of David

Summary: God commanded Samuel to find a replacement for King Saul and sent him to the family of Yishai in Beit Lechem. He then commanded Samuel to take a heifer to Beit Lechem as an offering to God and invite Yishai and his sons to the ensuing feast so that God could designate the next King of Israel. When Samuel saw Yishai’s eldest son Eliav, he tried to appoint him by pouring the special oil from a horn onto his head. Yet the oil did not flow. He tried again with Yishai’s second son Avinadav but the same thing happened. This episode repeated with all of Yishai’s seven sons. Yishai then explained that he had one more son called David who was busy tending the flocks. When David arrived, Samuel poured the anointing oil on him and it flowed, designating him as the next King of Israel.

A deeper look: As soon as David had been anointed by Samuel, the Ruach HaKodesh (God’s Holy Spirit which gives the recipient a special level of spiritual sensitivity) left Saul and transferred to David. Although Saul did not know that David had been anointed, the loss of his Ruach HaKodesh left him feeling deeply depressed. Ironically, David himself was called upon to play his harp for King Saul to try and relieve his melancholia (Samuel I 16:19-23). Rabbi Yitzchak Magriso (d. 1687) explains that David’s invitation into Saul’s palace was an act of Divine Providence which would pave the way for David’s kingship (Meam Loez loc cit.).

David’s compositions were not merely artistic works of pleasant music. The song and poetry which composed his Psalms were generated from this Ruach HaKodesh and his deep connection to God.

David’s Psalms form the basis of many prayers yet while we do not know the tunes he played, this episode teaches us that the creation of music is an expression of the soul. Therefore listening to a particular piece can have the capacity to stir one’s heart and rouse the spirit. The ability to compose emotive song is therefore only in part musical talent. The rest is nothing less than an expression of Divine.

War with Amalek

Summary: Samuel relates God’s commandment to Saul to destroy the nation of Amalek. Saul raises an army to fight Amalek and is on the brink of victory when he captures and spares their king Agag. He also saves some of the choicest Amalekite flock to offer as a sacrifice to God to thank him for victory. However, God became angry and related to Samuel through a prophecy that He regretted making Saul king. His instruction had been to destroy the entire nation, not save their king or offer their sheep and bulls. After meeting with Saul, Samuel berates him for not listening to God’s word. He tells Saul that measure for measure, just as Saul rejected God, so too God has now rejected him as king. Samuel executed Agag before returning home to Ramah, while Saul returned home to Givat Shaul.

A deeper look: The narrative implies that had Saul killed King Agag, the Amalekites would have been destroyed and his mission completed. The Gemara notes that due to Agag being captured and held alive, he became the ancestor of Haman (Megilah 13a). The 16th century commentator Rabbi Shmuel Laniado explains that the night before his execution by the prophet Samuel, Agag impregnated a maidservant whose child continued the seed of Amalek  (Kli Yakar on Shmuel I 15:30).

In the story of Esther, the Megillah notes that the Mordechai and Esther were from the tribe of Benjamin and are direct descendants of King Saul himself, who came from the Kish family (compare Samuel I 9:1-2 and Esther 2:5). The Gemara explains that while Mordechai is also referred to as Yehudi, from the tribe of Judah, this is because his mother was from the tribe of Judah while his father was a Benjaminite (Megillah 12b).

Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edels, known as the Maharsha (d. 1632) explains that one of the reasons Mordechai’s lineage is referred to in the Megillah is that their act of destroying Haman, the descendant of Agag, rectified this sin committed by Saul (Chidushei Aggadot on Megillah 12b).

Nevertheless, Saul’s downfall has been set and the beginning of the Davidic dynasty is about to begin.

 

Saul’s battles the Ammonites and Philistines

Summary: The newly appointed king Saul leads the people to battle against the Ammonites, thus establishing his authority. Samuel warns the people to remember that salvation comes from God alone, not a king of flesh and blood however righteous he may be. Saul then faced war with the Philistines but could only mobilise a small, poorly equipped army. Saul’s son Jonathan crossed into the Philistine garrison with his armour-bearer and began to rout the Philistines before they were joined by the rest of the army.

A deeper look: As Saul’s army is waiting to do battle with the Philistines, Samuel had instructed Saul to wait for seven days so that he could join Saul on the front line in Gigal and offer sacrifices to God (Samuel I 10:8). Yet the army grew impatient waiting for Samuel and many began to desert Saul. Saul was surrounded by a larger and better armed Philistine army. Coupled with an ever more anxious group of soldiers, Saul decided to offer the sacrifices without Samuel. Just as he had finished, Samuel arrived.

Samuel admonished Saul severely and added that had Saul waited for him, God would have established Saul’s kingdom over Israel forever. After this sin, his kingship will be limited (Samuel I 13:13-14). Why was the punishment so harsh?

One of the explanations is that a king must be able to listen to God’s word and resist public pressure, however logical or rational it sounds. Despite his immense righteousness and courage, this was a flaw in Saul’s character that would later manifest again resulting in a grave error of judgement. Now the kingship had to be taken away from him, together with his special connection with God.

Rabbi Yosef Albo (d. 1444) further explains that Saul also failed to repent properly for his sin. He even suggests that had Saul done so, his kingship would have continued alongside the future kingship of David (Sefer HaIkkarim 4:26). Yet it wasn’t meant to be. Saul’s downfall would however pave the way for the young shepherd David to take over the leadership of the Jewish people, resulting in a complicated and oftentimes dangerous relationship between the two.

Shaul

Summary: After the Jewish people demand Samuel appoints a king, Saul is chosen as the first Jewish king by God. He meets Samuel after looking for some lost donkeys. Following his anointment, he gathers the people. Yet some are sceptical about their new king and ridiculed Saul, although he remained silent.

A deeper look: When Jacob blessed his sons shortly before his death, he indicated that the Jewish monarchy would rest with Yehudah (Judah) and remain within their tribe (Genesis 49:10). Yet before Saul is anointed as king, his lineage reveals from the outset that he is from the tribe of Benjamin (Samuel I 9:1). While Rashi explains that the Torah means that from the appointment of David as king, royalty will remain with Yehudah, it begs the question why a Benjaminite king should have been appointed in the first place.

While the Jewish people had many enemies, perhaps the greatest threat came from the tribe of Amalek. Originally, it was Amalek who had attacked the fledgling Israelite nation on their way out of Egypt (Exodus 17:8). Indeed, they paved the way for other nations to attack at a time when the Jewish people should have been at their strongest (Midrash Tanchuma on Ki Teitzei 13).

Another Midrash relates a conversation between Mordechai and Haman regarding Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to Haman. Haman asked Mordechai why he refused to bow down to him, given that his ancestors had all bowed down to Haman’s ancestor Esau (Genesis 33:6-7). Mordechai replied that his ancestor Benjamin had not bowed down as he had not yet been born (Esther Rabbah 7:8).

While the fact that Jacob’s family had originally bowed to Esau was understandable as an act of showing honour, rather than worship, it weakened the ability of their descendents to overcome the force of Amalek. This explains why Saul was initially chosen to lead the Jewish people; as a Benjaminite he had that special merit. This is also why Mordechai and Esther were able to defeat Haman who was a descendant of Amalek (Esther 3:1) as they were direct descendants of Saul (Esther 2:5,7). Yet for all Saul’s potential, his mission will ultimately turn sour.

The Monarchy begins

Summary: With the return of the Aron (Ark) from the Philistines, Samuel initiated a campaign of repentance among the people by gathering the people at Mitzpah. Hearing that the entire nation had gathered in one place, the Philistines took the opportunity to attack. Samuel offered an olah, an elevation offering to God before the ensuing battle. With God’s help the Israelite army defeated the Philistines, taking back their land on the western coast.

As Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons Yoel and Aviyah as judges. Yet they were not righteous and the people demanded a king as proper replacement for Samuel’s leadership. God tells Samuel to allow the people a king and sets out the protocol for a Jewish monarchy.

A deeper look: It is a Torah command to appoint a king (Deuteronomy 17:15). Why did Samuel resist the people’s request to fulfil this mitzvah? The Gemara explains that while the elders wanted a king to be a judge and provide leadership, whereas the people wanted a king to merely be like the other nations (Sanhedrin 20b). Rabbi David Kimchi (d. 1235) adds that by comparing a Jewish king to a non-Jewish king the people denigrated the whole concept of a Jewish monarchy. The role of a Jewish king is to inspire and lead the people according to the Torah as part of their service to God, not impose laws or taxes through their own values, morals and rule of law.

Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1739) notes that by gathering the Jewish people together at Mitzpah to facilitate acts of repentance Samuel gave them a defence in the Heavenly court, despite their apparent affront to God through seeking to appoint a king only to be like the other nations.

Rabbi Meïr Leibush Weiser (Malbim, d. 1879) explains the difference between a מלך – melech, who is appointed by the people to serve the people and a מושל – moshel, who imposes their will on the people whether they like it or not. The people emphasised their desire for a melech – a righteous king, heralding the end of the period of the judges and the beginning of the Jewish monarchy.

The Ark is returned

Summary: Following the capture of Aron (Ark), the Philistines placed itin their temple in Ashdod dedicated to the idol Dagon. Each morning, the idol was found lying on its face. The residents of Ashdod became inflicted with plagues of mice that caused a bowel disease resulting in haemorrhoids. The residents of Ashdod moved the Aron to the cities of Gat and then Ekron. Yet wherever the Aron went the nearby Philistines suffered in the same way. Ultimately they agreed to return the Aron to the Jewish people together with a rather strange tribute to God. As the Aron arrived in Bet Shemesh, the people were punished for gazing at it. They sent the Aron to Kiryat-Ye’arim declaring that the Philistines had returned the Aron.

A deeper look: The punishment inflicted on the Philistines seems bizarre. Why did God cause a plague of haemorrhoid inflicting mice on them? Rabbi Moshe Dovid Valle (d. 1777) explains that mice are a type of common pest that invade a person’s house, eating and contaminating their food while destroying their home. God’s message to the Philistines was that by taking the Aron, they were acting like mice in the Land of Israel, the home of the Jewish people. They were stealing their source of spiritual nourishment and destroying their habitat.

Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1739) explains that the reason that they were struck with a bowel disease it that one of the claims of idol worshippers at that time was that they did not need to perform bodily functions. The Midrash notes that Pharaoh would secretly relieve himself in the River Nile to appear as a god, for a divine being should not need to perform human bodily functions. This is why Moses was commanded to meet him by the river (Shemot Rabbah 9:8 and Exodus 7:15).

When the Philistines returned the Aron, they made gold mice and gold haemorrhoids as a guilt offering to God. More importantly, it demonstrated that they understood that the affliction had been a divine act and not mere coincidence, an important lesson for both Philistine and Jew alike.