Friday morning was much busier than usual at my house. The phone was ringing, the doorbell was ringing, people texted and emailed, and in the midst of all of it I was making challah and cleaning my kitchen and getting ready for Shabbat. The next step was to write down my sermon for Shabbat, which was in my head but not on paper yet.
And then a phone call took me by surprise. It was Rev. Wayne Farrell, who is the rector of Saint Boniface Church here in Sarasota. Wayne and I aren’t close, but we have known each other for years, and we sat together at our mutual friend Rev. Virginia Herring‘s funeral.
Like Jews who all read the same Torah portion every week wherever we are in the world, churches have specific readings for every Sabbath, and the readings that they’re doing currently are all about King David. Wayne had some questions that he wanted to ask a Rabbi before he wrote his sermon.
Basically, he wanted to know how we Jews deal with the fact that King David was not perfect. The books of Samuel and First Kings tell us that he was incredibly imperfect, someone the Me Too movement of today would be exceptionally unhappy about. Flawed doesn’t begin to describe him.
Among other failings, he engineered the death of Bathsheba’s husband in battle, so he could marry her. After he’d convinced her to commit adultery with him.
Rev. Farrel wanted to know from my perspective why Jews (and Christians) continue to think so highly of David.
And by the way, why did God let David get away with all the things that he did? Why did God let this incredibly flawed person be someone who we still admire, think about, talk about, even sing about?
So we talked, and I threw out the other sermon.
I told Wayne that I think it’s partly because David was so very human, so flawed, just like all the rest of us. Our tradition teaches that God caught on to the fact that God had created an imperfect people, just after the flood in Genesis, when God said to Godself, “Never again will I doom the earth because of humans, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from their youth.” (Genesis 8:21).
There’s something we tend to overlook about the verse in Genesis: God said that immediately after smelling the “pleasing odor” of Noah’s sacrifice. But God didn’t instruct him to build an alter and make a sacrifice. Noah did it on his own initiative.
In essence, what God noticed about humans was our duality. Yes, we might have wicked inclinations. But we also have beautiful inclinations. We are complicated and we are flawed and we are human. And we are God’s creation, made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
(There’s another discussion that we can have about this implying that God is imperfect, but that’s for another day.)
King David’s flaws were an inherent part of a complicated and passionate man. He wore his heart on his sleeve; reading the stories about him, you know how he felt about the people and events around him. He was emotional, and when he loved, he loved with his whole heart.
And he loved God. With all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might. And God loved him back.
Rev. Farrell asked me, If this is so, why didn’t David get to build the Temple, if he was so beloved of God? He wanted to, but God said no. I told him that I don’t know what our sages said about this, but this is what I think.
David is eternal. He lives on in our hearts and imaginations. He lives on as God’s beloved. He lives on as proof that God doesn’t need or want us to be perfect. He lives on as the forefather of the Messiah, or, if you like, the Messianic Age.
The Temple was not eternal. It was destroyed twice, and that’s what the observance of Tisha B’Av is about. During Tisha B’Av we mourn that which was lost. And after the day of mourning has ended, we look forward to what we can do to perfect the world, to make it the place that we yearn for.
Not another Eden, nor another Temple in Jerusalem, but a world in which imperfect humans can live in peace. Where we will continue to be flawed and make mistakes and seek forgiveness from each other, and grant forgiveness to each other.
In this world, King David will live on. His legacy of love and devotion to God outlasted his bad behavior, outlasted the Temple, will outlast us. He gave us an example of how to be human, a deeply flawed human, and still be able to leave a legacy that gives us permission to be exactly who we are.
It’s a tall order. It’s not easy to accept our own failings. Which is why in seven weeks we will observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, spending time in contemplation and release, trying to turn in a new direction. And if we fail? Then we’ll pick ourselves up and try again.
This is the sermon that I gave over at Congregation Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat, immediately preceding Tisha B’Av.