March 2010

The Meaning of the Passover Seder

Every spring, Jews all over the world gather with their families and friends to perform the most complex ritual of the Jewish faith, the Passover Seder. A Seder is a meal of storytelling, a multi-sensory experience of symbols commemorating one of the most important moments in the Torah. Passover celebrates the release of the Hebrew slaves from captivity in Egypt, the beginning of a people's freedom and also its entry into the difficulty of self-governance. But there's more to the Seder than just the lessons of biblical scripture. If the story was the only purpose of the ritual, we could just as easily gather at the synagogue like we do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The story is our past, an important thing to be sure, but the Seder asks us to focus on our present and future as well.

David the King: Rise of the House of David

As David ascends to total leadership over both Hebrew kingdoms, he quickly comes to realize what it means to be in such a high station. He has a nation full of people who see his power. Some admire him, some fear him and some challenge him. Most tragically, the moment people see David as a king is the moment he becomes disconnected from them. They no longer see a man, a friend, or even a proper partner. Chapters four and five of Second Samuel may depict the rise of our ostensible hero to the crown, but it can't help sounding sad and even, to an extent, empty.

David the King: The Death of Avner

At the beginning of Second Samuel, David returns to Israel and is anointed king by a large contingent of supporters, but he is not universally accepted. There is still a group of soldiers loyal to Avner, the de facto retainer of Saul's line. It is very clear by Chapter 3 that Avner has opportunistically claimed all that Saul once had, if only because there is no one but David to oppose him. Avner even takes Saul's concubine for himself, a sign that he has been using the civil war in Judah to luxuriate in the ill-gotten trappings of royalty. The entire third chapter of Second Samuel is about setting things right, including relieving Avner of the throne he stole.

The Ketubah: A Jewish Contract of Marriage

Many people would assume that a legal document outlining the conditions for marriage and provisions for the potential end of a marriage is a modern invention of today's lawyer-saturated society. The truth is that the marriage contract, today known as the prenuptial agreement, is practically as old as marriage itself. It may not seem very romantic, but many societies of law have been in the practice of using marriage contracts, as well as revising them, for thousands of years. In Jewish culture, this contract is called a Ketubah.

David the King: The Start of the Revolution

I have suggested several times now that the rise of David to the highest office in the kingdom of Judah as it is depicted is nothing short of a popular revolution. Because the text had to deal with the oral history of its culture as well as the creation of a compelling narrative, this revolution couldn't be portrayed as an out-and-out civil war. David could not kill Saul and remain the hero. With Saul's death at Mt. Gilboa at the end of First Samuel, that problem has been taken care of. What remains for the story is the struggle for power that follows.

David the King: Liberation of Ziklag and the Death of Saul

Today we come to the end of the first Book of Samuel, chapters 29, 30 and 31. In these chapters, it's easy to see a sort of literary conundrum. As we saw last week, David had allied himself with the Philistines after he fled Israel. When the Philistine king decides to invade Israel with the intent to wholly conquer it, David intends on marching with him. This presents a major problem for storytellers who need David to be a sympathetic figure. How can he take up arms against his own people and still remain the folk hero First Samuel has clearly tried to make him?