It was a chilling scene. Hundreds of people lay on the ground, helplessly awaiting their fate, which would be decided arbitrarily by a single man. This man looked them up and down as his armed followers awaited his instructions.
The prisoners had heard tales about this man, how he would unhesitatingly kill his enemies by the scores at the slightest provocation. It was startling to many of them that a man known to be so cultured, so artistic, so gentle and kind in other situations could also be so ruthless. The prisoners didn’t understand this man — but they feared him more than death itself!
“Split them into two equal groups!” he ordered. “Measure them with a rope. One group will live and the other will die. Let the living ones carry testament back to their people.”
Of course, this is the story of King David defeating the nation of Moav and taking vengeance upon them for killing his parents. David thereby achieved peace with them, and Moav subsequently paid tribute to him. (Samuel II Chapter 8)
Not long after, King David sent emissaries to offer condolences to the prince of Ammon upon the passing of his father. This was in violation of the Torah’s command not to make peaceful overtures to this nation that had traditionally demonstrated cruelty to the Jews. The prince, now king, was advised by his counselors that David’s emissaries were really spies. He accepted their words and sent the emissaries back to Israel in humiliating fashion, with their beards half cut and their garments torn to their waists.
In the pantheon of insults and degradations that Israel and its ambassadors have suffered, this hardly tops the list. Nevertheless, King David responded swiftly and decisively. He waged war with Ammon and Aram, a mercenary nation, and killed more than 40,000 soldiers. Subsequently, Ammon and its allies, “seeing that they had been defeated before Israel, made peace with Israel and paid tribute to them.” (Samuel II Chapter 10)
If David was known to the world and most of his ignorant fellow Jews as more than a harp-playing underdog who slew a giant, what would be said about him? The first anecdote would produce shrill cries of “Nazi!”, “Savage!”, and every sort of condemnation, while the second would make today’s timid, image-conscious Jew shudder and look over his shoulder. Most Jews would be perfectly comfortable discarding King David as a Jewish role model, eager to sacrifice him on the altar of enlightenment, compassion, and tolerance. Those with a smidgen of attachment to their heritage might redefine David as a primitive man in a primitive time, one who if he lived today would respond more diplomatically in our more complicated, modern world.
Even the most observant Jews would not be comfortable discussing David’s wartime accomplishments, let alone take pride in them – certainly the organizations that represent observant Jewry would never do so, for fear of blandishments and a cut in their allowance. Perhaps this is why the study of Navi has become relegated to women and children, lest the lessons of Jewish history become burdensome on those with a budget and contacts in high offices.
Yet one small fact will not go away. We Jews pray three times every day for the leadership of the House of David to be speedily restored. Reform Jews will have no trouble slicing this passage out of their prayer books if they ever become aware of its significance (assuming they have not already done so), but what about observant Jews? Do they really know what they are praying for, and if they did, would they continue to do so? Do they pray for a gentle caricature of David in a vague fantasy world instead of the real thing?
I am not a bloodthirsty man.
I am not an extremist.
I am a simple Jew who permits traditional Jewish teachings to shape his views, rather than the reverse.
King David shed lots of blood in his career as a warrior and a king, but he was criticized by a prophet only once in his life. Following the episode with the prince of Ammon came the infamous story of Batsheva. David ordered his general to allow a single Jewish soldier to be left in a perilous situation, and this man was killed by the enemy as a result. For this the prophet Nathan castigated David (something no truly immoral king would stand for, let alone humbly submit to), and David accepted several harsh decrees upon himself in contrition. All because a single Jew was indirectly killed through his command.
Leaders of Israel and the Jewish people should take particular note. Perhaps when faced with difficult situations they need to reflect and ask themselves, “What would King David do?”
David was never criticized for his violent reprisals against foreign enemies. On the contrary, these acts are recorded as heroisms that were never even questioned by those who received messages directly from God. He was a gentle man – but in times of war, and in times that needed to become times of war, he went against his nature, did what had to be done, and didn’t apologize for it. David recognized that degradation of his diplomats could not be taken lightly, let alone more tangible acts of war.
This is the leader we pray for three times a day, and have prayed for for thousands of years.
When the day comes that more of us really mean it, perhaps we will merit the fulfillment of this prayer.