Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Really, King David?

[I found this interesting advice for a Rosh Kollel, at Life in Israel, interesting]

A couple of weeks ago, during a shiur, I was asked how King David could have said, “I have never seen a righteous person abandoned.” (Tehillim 37:25) It's a question I hear frequently; here are three approaches:

1. Radak seems to have been troubled by this question; he appended the word “entirely” to the sentence, in his commentary. In other words, King David meant that Gd doesn't entirely abandon a person - even if it seems that way.

2. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his book, To Heal a Fractured World, offers another explanation:

“There is, however, a magnificent interpretation attributed to the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of blessed memory. He argued that the verb in the verse, raiti, "seen", should be understood as having the same meaning as it has in Esther 8:6... She says: "How can I see [raiti] disaster fall on my people? How can I see [raiti] the destruction of my kindred?" Here the verb means not simply to see but rather: to watch, to be a passive witness, to be a bystander.

“In this sense, said Rabbi Soloveitchik, the verse in Psalms should be read as: "When a righteous person was being forsaken or his children begging for bread, I never merely stood and watched." Understood thus, it has a similar meaning to the command (Vayyikra 19: 16), "Do not stand still when your neighbour’s life is in danger". As the Holocaust historian Yehudah Bauer put it: Thou shalt not be a bystander.

“Understood thus, the placing of the verse at the end of Birkat ha-mazon is beautifully symmetrical. Grace after meals begins by thanking G-d who feeds the hungry. It ends by urging us to do likewise. Having eaten and been satisfied and having blessed G-d, we now remind ourselves of those who do not have the blessing we have just enjoyed, who lack food - the righteous who are forsaken and the children forced to beg for bread. We commit ourselves, in King David’s words, not to stand silently and watch, but to act and bring them help. For we may not rest satisfied while others go hungry. We must heed their cry, as G-d heeds ours.“

3. To the words of Radak and Rabbi Sacks, I would add one more note: The book of Tehillim is neither a work of history nor a collection of prophecies. Rather, Tehillim is an archive of prayers.

Tehillim is King David’s monument to Faith, a record of his relationship with his Creator throughout the epic struggles of the most embattled figure in all of Jewish Scripture. From family strife to national upheaval to international conflict, from punishment and rejection and distance from Gd to cycles of sin and repentance and love and longing for the Divine, from public humiliation to the vision of a triumphant Temple built, King David expressed in words the extremes of human emotion he experienced through the numerous religious apices and nadirs of his seventy years of life.

Through that lens, the words, “I have never seen a righteous person abandoned,” may be more prayer than assertion. The king who had known dire circumstances—poverty, flight, life as a fugitive before King Shaul in the land of his foes, a son Avshalom who attempted to kill him in pursuit of his throne, another son Adoniyahu who staged a feast while his father lay on his deathbed in an attempt to claim the throne for himself—pledged fealty to Gd, saying, “Despite all of the suffering I have seen and experienced, I have faith that You would never truly abandon the righteous.”

We invoke this prayer at the close of our Birkat haMazon, as part of our own assertion of faith. “The man who trusts in Gd is blessed, for I believe Gd will not abandon a righteous person, or his descendants. Gd will give strength to His nation, and He will send them shalom.” This is King David’s prayer, and ours as well.

What is your answer to the question?


  1. Sort of like your #3, but from a theological rather than prayerful perspective. Most like your words "We invoke this prayer at the close of our Birkat haMazon, as part of our own assertion of faith..."

    I trust with a complete trust that the tragedy I see happen to the righteous and their offspring is not abandonment. It's a declaration not only of emunah, but of bitachon, of belief that the righteous (at minimum) are subject to Personal Divine Providence (Hashgachah Peratis). And therefore, so is His nation as a collective.

    But I have to thank you for the CR's presentation of RYBS's take on "ra'isi".

    But if He would just hurry up with that peace stuff, I wouldn't complain....

  2. My view of God is like that of Job. And when Job's friends say that "God is just," God himself got mad at them. He clearly does not agree.
    Without him saying so openly, I think King David was going with this approach.

    1. Answer #3 relies on the gap between Providence in general and reward which is only one kind of Providence.

      Job could be right about Justice; or he could be right about the appropriateness of discussing Justice. But that doesn't rule out Job being subject to Providence.

  3. I don't recall where I learned this, but I remember this particular phrase being an allusion to the havtacha regarding tzedaka...

  4. I have always understood it as meaning that the phenomenon of the impoverished tsaddiq is a rare occurrence, so rare that in the course of a lifetime you might never personally witness it. That doesn't mean that it cannot happen, just that it is very infrequent.

  5. Shalom RosenfeldJune 26, 2012 at 7:00 PM

    I'd read it as:

    "I never saw a righteous person feel totally abandoned, even if his children were going hungry."

  6. From same root as 'ra'ui'-'fitting' -- "I never approved of a tzaddik being needy etc"

  7. R' Micha-
    I hear; interesting.

    Thanks; please let me know if you do find a source.

    R' Joshua-
    But is it that rare?

    Interesting, but can you demonstrate support for it from the pasuk or context?

    Thanks; is that your own approach?

    1. Heard it many years ago from England's last surviving true Maskil!

  8. Replies
    1. I phrased it unfortunately, as the person concerned - the late Dr David Patterson z"l - is no longer with us. Davis Patterson (1922 - 2005) was a UK-born Hebrew scholar, who taught at Oxford for many years. His great non-academic achievement was the creation of the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies at Yarnton (now called the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies www.ochjs.ac.uk ). A scholar, a maskil and a gentleman.

  9. I take the general approach that issues involving hashgacha from the prophetic era cannot be extended to post-prophecy.

  10. PJS-
    Thanks for clarifying.

    So you understand that King David was speaking b'nevuah here?

  11. So you understand that King David was speaking b'nevuah here?

    Not per se, but in general one has to be cautious about drawing inferences regarding issues of theodicy, and the like from that period of history.

    If in that area people had access to experience the shechina through the mishkan/temple and had general access to prophets (especially if prophesy was a phenomenon beyond the named neviim) then the whole mechanism of national and personal hashgacha would have been completely different than anything we experience now.

    David would not have had to wonder if this or that decision was correct - his prophet could tell him. The nation would know the precise cause of each famine, military loss, etc. I would argue that in that era it would be impossible for a tzadik to really be 'neezav' as the prophet would have been able to connect action to reward and punishment. Per the Ramban on Bechukotai:

    "When Bnei Yisrael are at peace [with G-d], their lives will not proceed according to the laws of nature at all, whether as relates to their bodies or their Land, whether to the individual or to the nation as a whole. Rather, Hashem will bless their bread and their water and will remove all illness from them such that they will not need doctors or medicine. Thus it is written (Shmot 15:26), 'I am Hashem who heals you.' . . . One who consults prophets does not consult doctors, for how can there be room for doctors in G- d's house when He has promised (Shmot 23:25) to bless your bread and water and remove illness from amongst you!"

    Obviously this does not apply in a world of seter.

    Shabbat Shalom from Calgary

  12. Yannai-
    That's a fascinating idea; thank you.

  13. Yannai's idea really is interesting. But one could only take it so far. The success of kings and other figures in Tanakh didn't always correlate to who was a tzadiq. Even in the days of prophecy, before hesteir panim, it was still possible to have tzadiq vera lo.

    Iyov was written during this period. While it's possible that it was written to address a question people would have in the future, I find that a stretch.

  14. I would argue that Iyov cannot really be considered neezav as he gets a pretty lengthy direct response from Hashem regarding his problems.

    In that context I've always understood 'veZaro mevakesh lachem' as "and (even if) his children are...".

    In the context of benching the following line (Oz LeAmo Iten/Amo Bashalom) puts the focus a national level which fits in with reward and punishment at the national level per the 2nd paragraph of the Shema as opposed to the individual-focused but interaction-free 1st paragraph.

  15. Still haven't found a source for my earlier comment, but the context of the actual chapter in Tehillim that it is drawn from (37:25) is speaking generally about tzeddaka.

    Also, TB Yevamot (16a) quotes the verse, and it is addressed as being said by the Sar of the world, so perhaps David haMelech did say it b'nevuah...

  16. Yannai-
    True, Iyyov receives a reply, but it's hardly an explanation.

    Interesting point re: Yevamos, thanks.

  17. RE: The Rebbetzin's Husband

    But could you consider him abandoned/forsaken? Isn't the whole point of the story that he is receiving a high* amount of personal attention.

    (* ungodly seems the colloquially correct word, but somehow inappropriate here)

  18. No, I wouldn't consider Iyov abandoned. In fact, that was my proposed answer to the question -- if we generalize to tzadiqim other than Iyov:

    David haMelekh saw that even tzadiqim who had to watch their children beg for food are not abandoned.

    My point in mentioning Iyov was to limit the consequence of your earlier observation that David haMelekh lived before hesteir panim dominated history. Even then there was a need to write Iyov, to speak of the tzadiq vera lo.

  19. Yannai-
    Depends on whether the goal is attention or aid, no?

  20. An interesting historical note/emendation to your post. While Lord Sacks quotes that explanation in the name of the Rav (who may, in fact, have said it as well), the actual source is Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung z"l. Indeed, in Lord Sacks's Haggadah, he quotes this explanation from the late Mr. Moses Feuerstein z"l of Boston, the giant of contemporary American Orthodoxy. Family members of Mr. Feuerstein have told me that he heard this explanation from Rabbi Jung (the two were extraordinarily close for decades) on a boat on the way to Switzerland, where they both spent summers. Given Mr. Feuerstein's role in all institutions in Boston community- from Maimonides to the Bostoner Rebbe's initiatives to the Lakewood Kollel- and his deep friendship and support of the Rav for so many years, one could plausibly suggest that the Rav heard this explanation from Mr. Feuerstein!