How to think about King David

How to think about King David

Speakers in Franklin Lakes will focus on the brilliant, confusing, complicated ancient leader on erev Shavuot

David raises the head of Goliath, as painted by Josephine Pollard in 1899. (Wikipedia)
David raises the head of Goliath, as painted by Josephine Pollard in 1899. (Wikipedia)

According to tradition, King David’s yarzheit is on erev Shavuot.

Rabbi Joseph Prouser’s shul, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, will mark that date in a traditional way. After Shabbat ends, people will light 150 candles, remembering the 150 psalms that tradition attributes to him (although scholars do not).

And then, the tikkun leil Shavuot at Emanuel will be a look at David, as he is seen in the two Books of Samuel that chronicle the legend of his life. Four speakers will “each teach an aspect of David,” Rabbi Prouser said.

In a sweet coincidence, this Shavuot also is the 30th anniversary of Rabbi Prouser’s ordination. The tikkun also will be “a celebration of that personal milestone,” he said. “My interaction with other clergy has been very important to me over these 30 years, so I want guests who can participate in that aspect of the tradition.

David is an enormously complex character in the brilliant written story of his life. “There are two characters who are described as adomi — red — in the Bible,” Rabbi Prouser said. “Esau and David. Esau is described as red because he is bloody. David is red because he is ruddy. It is a spiritual Rorschach test, and an indication of the deep, sometimes irrational, sometimes amoral attachment the Jewish people have to the personage of King David.”

Not only is David fascinating and complicated, he is also oddly timely. “I think that there is a specific appeal right now to talking about a flawed national leader,” Rabbi Prouser said.

Rabbi Prouser’s wife, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, is the executive vice president and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers. She will look at David as a husband. “I am just never sure about him,” Dr. Prouser said. “Every act he does can be interpreted in more than one way. I am never able to fully trust him. He is a great mourner — but he seems to have been involved in the deaths of the people he is mourning for. But I am unwilling to say that there is no real pain there. I do think he loves Jonathan; I do think he has a love for Saul. But at the same time, he wants what he wants.

“And he also has been anointed by God, so how much of his working to achieve power isn’t him just following God’s will? It’s not to say that his actions are bringing God’s will to bear, but that he actually knows that he was anointed. It’s strategic — he wants power, but he knows that God has chosen him.

“That doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it makes it richer and more complicated.

“There is only one time when I fully trust his mourning. That’s over Avshalom. That time his mourning is politically inappropriate, and his people have to say to him that he is embarrassing the troops. That’s the one place where we see David’s true feelings.

“He desperately did not want his son to die. He handled the rebellion brilliantly, with great cleverness — he runs away from Jerusalem, which is fascinating. He says that he is running away, he says he is going to lose — and then he looks over and says by the way, it’s pretend, and he puts everything into place. He’s tactically brilliant — but when Avshalom dies, it’s devastating.

“We are told in the text that everyone is in love with David,” she said. “The text is in love with David,” and in fact it is hard for readers to avoid that crush. She recalls a very smart student who once told her, “I really don’t want to like David — but I can’t help it.”

The scene where David is anointed is Cinderella-like, Dr. Prouser said. “Samuel comes to anoint someone, and the father takes his older sons to bring before Samuel, and doesn’t even think to include David.” It is David, of course, who is anointed, as it is David who brings down the Philistine giant Goliath. “It is interesting to think of David as the little boy in the family, who has no standing, who is not treated well.

“He is starved for love, and that is fed in some way by all the people who love him. It never says that he loves anybody.”

Joel Wiest, who is Mormon, is his stake president; a stake includes many churches, which each is headed by a bishop. (He used to be one.) His stake, unusually, is not only geographic but demographic as well; it’s for young adults in the New York metropolitan area.

Mr. Wiest also is a longtime friend of Rabbi Prouser’s through the world of Boy Scouting, in which both men are deeply involved. He lives in Jersey City.

“I will talk about David as a builder, both of faith and of the nation,” Mr. Wiest said. “Throughout his life, David was a faithful man, meaning that he had an unconditional reliance on God and complete confidence that God would come through both for him and for the Israelite nation. I will go through David’s life and provide evidence of that fact from the Scriptures.

“An example — take David slaying Goliath. David had absolute confidence in God. When he heard that Goliath was mocking the armies of Israel, he said, ‘Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that could defy the armies of the living God?’ When he goes out to do battle, he says, ‘thou comest to me with a sword and a spear and a shield, but I come to thee in the name of the Lord. This day, will the Lord deliver the enemy into my hand.’

“He knew that he would win.

“And each and every incident is preceded with the words, ‘David went and inquired of the Lord.’ That demonstrated his confidence that God would speak to him, and God would direct him.”

He also will talk about David’s legacy as a nation-builder, Mr. Wiest said, and “that is an important part of his legacy — but that legacy didn’t last very long. David’s long-lasting legacy was his complete reliance on God.”

The Rev. Debbie Pierce is the associate pastor for Christian education at Ponds Reformed Church in Oakland. She’ll talk about “how God chooses not to look at outward appearances, as we do, but at a man’s heart. I am focusing on his call from God to be a man after God’s own heart.

“If we read the Scripture, we are told that he didn’t look like a king. Yes, he was handsome, but he was not big or rugged. He was a smaller man, maybe even pretty. He wasn’t described in ways you would associate with kingship — but God is telling us to take a good look at his character.”

What is his character? “He is a man who searches after God’s desire and God’s will,” Rev. Pierce said. “Most of the time he puts God’s desire above his own. And even in those moments when he does not, God allows for forgiveness. God still says that this is a man after his own heart.

“Our humanness is not held against us.”

Rev. Pierce has fond feelings not only for King David, but for Rabbi Prouser as well. “He is a wonderful man,” she said. “He is great to talk to, and he has a real openness.

“It is good to know that even those we have different opinions about our faith, we have a basis in faith that we share. It is really good to work with him.”

The last speaker, Rabbi Caren Levine, will talk about “David and the Arts.”

There will be a dairy buffet available throughout the night — all that talking and listening can work up a mighty appetite! — and Rabbi Prouser will finish the evening with an original poem — an homage to both Shavuot and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser

What: Presents a tikkun leil Shavuot, “Who Was David: Soldier? Singer? Sovereign? Singer?”

When: On erev Shavuot, Saturday, May 19, at 7 p.m.

Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes

How much: Free

And also: Dairy dinner, all night long

For more information: Call (201) 560-0200 or go to

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