The monstrous moments inside of, and the tragedies associated with this week's Haftarah (I Samuel 20:18-42), make it one of the most human stories in the bible. We witness a father, King Saul, hurling his terrible accusations and spear at Jonathan even as he is desperate to protect his son's claim to the throne. Saul is not in one of his moments of insanity; he is, in fact, thinking clearly. He understands that Jonathan is protecting David. He demands that his son, to whom he swore an oath not to harm David, deliver his friend for execution.
This ugly scene in the life of a previously magnificent human being is framed between Jonathan's demonstrations of ironclad filial loyalty and selfless friendship. The attempted filicide is contrasted with a childish strategy meant to fool a paranoid king. The final words between Jonathan and David, linger in David's mind and actions until the final moments of his life.
What is missing in the scene lasts far longer; Jonathan does not think to offer his friend provisions for the road. David, seeking food and weapons, travels to Nov, the city of priests, and sets in motion atrocities that will haunt Israel for generations. Beautiful, loyal, selfless Jonathan is so humanly torn between his father and friend, between his emotions and logic, between inner turmoil and spiritual clarity, that he sends his friend off to escape with his life, but with nothing with which to fend for himself.
This is a story of greatness and depravity mixing together; saving King David, the future of Israel, and leading to mass murder and revenge.
Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, on which we remember how quickly human beings can become depraved monsters. Next week will we celebrate Yom HaAtzma'ut, Israel Independence Day, on which we honor how the few can act with heroic greatness. In the space of a week we will move from tragedy to accomplishment, from the worst in people to their best.
The fine line between the two connects the weekly portions read in Israel and the Diaspora; Shemini and Tzaria: Just as the creation of Adam followed that of the animals, so too, the laws of purity of a human being follow those of animals, to teach us that if we are worthy, God will say, "I created all that you would need to be prepared for you." However, if we prove unworthy, God will say, "Even the gnat was created before you." The highest and lowest states of humanity, the best and the worst, are in our hands.
Why do so many hear only the worst? Men are weak, so women must dress modestly to protect the men from sinning. Why do we not teach our children to live as human beings at their best; that their dress should reflect their potential greatness? "Pray for Redemption from this sinful world," speaks to the lowest part of us. "Aspire to live as people deserving Redemption," speaks to us at our highest. Why are we so shaken by Yom HaShoah, yet so uninspired by Yom HaAtzma'ut? Why do we pile on stringencies to protect us from violating the Torah rather than teach our children to aspire to live as did the heroes who built a magnificent country from nothing?
We read how the great Jonathan made a small mistake leading to monstrous events and we fear how easily we can fall. It is fear that makes us hear the message of the worst in people rather than their best.
It was courage that led to the heroism that built Israel, often the courage of people who had personally experienced the worst of humanity in the Holocaust. It is courage that feeds and nurtures a small country that is surrounded by the fanatical hatred of hundreds of millions. Jonathan's fears made him forget to give food to David. It was his courage that saved David. Fear makes us see the worst in human beings. Courage pushes us to see the best.
Our's is a religion of courageous conviction that we can achieve the best in ourselves. No wonder God's first words to Joshua, the first conqueror of Israel, were, "Be strong and courageous." There is no other way to build Israel. There is no other way to live as a Jew.
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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