Haftara to Parshas Shemini
II Samuel 6:1–19
The story of our haftarah begins in the days of the prophet Samuel. The Jews had been battling their principal enemy, the Pelishtim (Philistines). Unfortunately, the war was being lost to the Philistines, with thousands on the Jewish side falling on the battlefield. As a result, the elders of the people decided to take the aron (the holy ark) out of the Tabernacle that stood in Shiloh, and bring it to to the battlefield. This, they thought, would surely provide protection and victory, for the Divine presence always rested upon the aron. But even this was to no avail. G‑d had already decreed this fate of the Jews in His first prophecy to Samuel. In the end the Philistines were victorious, and captured the aron, bringing it back to to their land in captivity.
The Philistines now had the upper hand over the Jews, but the aron brought them no good at all: every place to which they brought the aron was immediately stricken with a horrible plague. Seeing this, the Philistines eventually decided to return the aron to Israel. They sent it back on a new carriage harnessed to a pair of cows. Along with it they sent gifts of gold, so that the G‑d of the Jews would be appeased.
The Pair of Cows
The wagon made its way to the Jewish town of Beit Shemesh. The people of Beit Shemesh did not act with the proper respect to the aron, and a devastating plague struck the town. Realizing the problem, the people of Beit Shemesh sent word to the town of Kiryat Ye’arim, asking if they would take the aron into their midst. The townspeople agreed, and the aron was brought with great respect to the home of a man named Avinadav, who together with his son Elazar were designated and sanctified to watch over the aron.
David Brings the Aron to the City of David, Jerusalem, the capital of the United Jewish Kingdom
An eventful twenty years passed. After King David had become ruler over all of Israel, David felt that it was proper to bring the aron to the City of David (now Jerusalem), the capital of the united Jewish kingdom. He gathered thirty thousand of the most prominent Jews and assembled them in Kiryat Ye’arim. The aron was put onto a new carriage and paraded from the home of Avinadav up to the capital. During the procession, however, there was a sudden tragedy. It started when the oxen that were drawing the carriage caused the aron to shake. Fearing that it would fall, Uzza, a son of Avinadav, reached out and held onto the aron. In an instant Uzza fell down dead.
The Tragedy of Uzza
Our sages explain that Uzza had forgotten about the unique properties of the object he was attempting to rescue, which had been demonstrated on an earlier occasion in Jewish history:
The Jews entered the Land of Israel by crossing the Jordan River, which miraculously split for them. The way this happened was that the kohanim who were carrying the aron walked to the edge of the river, and as long their feet were dipped in the water, the river flowed vertically (the incoming water piling up along an invisible barrier), allowing the Jews to cross. Once this had happened, the kohanim stepped back and the river began to flow normally again. Now that the kohanim and the aron needed to cross over, the aron lifted itself and its carriers in a flight over the Jordan, safely landing in the Promised Land on the other side.
The Aron Carried its Carriers
Given that “the aron carried its carriers,” Uzza should have understood that the aron itself was in no danger of falling. Uzza was a great tzaddik, and was held by G‑d to an intense level of holiness. Being in the presence of the aron of G‑d yet at the same time doubting its capabilities was the cause of Uzza’s death. The Talmud notes that the wording of the verse indicates that Uzza entered Gan Eden (paradise) immediately upon his demise.
Like that of the Sons of Aaron
This part of the haftarah constitutes the connection to the portion of Shemini. We read in this Parshah how the children of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, perished in a similar way as Uzza: they too had acted out of line in the service of the Tabernacle. Like Uzza, the children of Aaron were immensely holy people, for which reason they were held to such an intense standard.
Our sages note that the incident was actually a result of an oversight by David himself. The verse in Numbers states clearly that the aron was not to be carried through the wilderness on wagons, but on the shoulders of the levites. The Talmud notes that David had forgotten a law which any child could quote. It was this mistake that was the direct cause of the death of Uzza: had the aron been carried as it should have been, the entire event would have been avoided.
David Forgets a Law
The Talmud explains that David forgot this clear verse in retribution for a previous error of his. In one of his psalms2 David speaks of the Torah, comparing it to sweet music that provided solace to him in his time of distress: “Your statutes were to me as songs in the house of my sojournings.” The overtones of this statement are troubling, though, since it suggests that the Torah can be viewed as just a sweet “feel-good” medium. In truth, the Torah must be studied with an immense amount of effort and strain, for any lack of attention to it can result in forgetting or misunderstanding its true intent. G‑d wanted to drive this message home, and therefore caused David to forget a most obvious and explicit law that any child knows. This would correct any such attitude, for David himself and for generations to come.3
Seeing what happened to Uzza, David feared to take the aron to the City of David, and had it detour to the home of Oved-Edom the Gittite. Oved-Edom was a Levite who David knew to be capable of treating the aron with the proper respect. Indeed he did so, and in the three months that aron was in his home, G‑d blessed Oved-Edom with great riches and many children. The Talmud4 tells us that Oved-Edom’s wife and eight daughters-in-law all became pregnant at that time, and later each gave birth to sextuplets!
After three months, David was told that G‑d had blessed Oved-Edom, and it was therefore safe for him to bring the aron to the capital. David was at least as spiritually capable as Oved-Edom with regard to the safekeeping of the aron, and the event with Uzza could be taken as an isolated incident. The parade that had been disturbed with the death of Uzza was now rearranged to include the primary component previously missing: the aron was now carried by the Levites on their shoulders. Sacrifices were offered after the first six steps that they took, and a continuum of additional sacrifices was brought as they took each sixth step, and even more after each six sets of six steps taken.5
David’s joy knew no bounds. He donned an ephod, the kind of apron worn by those who would lead their lives as prophets. David sprang and danced with all his might amidst shofar and trumpet blasts, as the parade went on. His wife Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was looking on from the window, and was not impressed: in his exuberance, David had displayed total disregard for the dignity of his position, and she thought this to be improper. (In the verses following the haftarah, she confronts her husband over this, and he explains that such self-denigration is indeed right and proper when done in honor of G‑d. “I would have done even more than I did,” he added.)
David designated a special tent for the aron in Jerusalem. It might have seemed more befitting to put the aron in a permanent structure, but he did not do so. This was because he knew prophetically that a permanent Temple for G‑d would soon be finally built in Jerusalem, but he did not yet know the exact location. It was only many years later, after the prophet Gad told David to purchase the threshing floor of Aravnah the Jebusite—later to become the Temple Mount—that David was let in on the place of the future Temple. It was for the same reason that the aron was not taken to the Tabernacle that stood at the time in Gibeon. David wished that the Temple would be built in his days, and had the aron brought to Jerusalem with this in mind.6
Hodu l’Hashem kir’u vishmo
At the time when the aron was brought into the tent, David composed the prayer beginning Hodu l’Hashem kir’u vishmo (“Give thanks to G‑d, call out in His Name…”),7 to be sung daily before the aron. (Later, this passage was included at the beginning of the daily morning prayers.) Sacrifices were offered, and David blessed the people. Each man and woman present received a fine share of bread, meat and wine in celebration.
1. Talmud, Sotah 35a.
2. Psalms 119:54.
3. See Tanya, Kuntres Acharon, Essay 6, for a chassidic perspective on why calling the Torah a "song" was a mistake on David's part, why this was punished specifically with forgetfulness, and why this is specifically connected with the carrying of the aron on the shoulders of the Levites.
4. Talmud, Berachot 63b.
5. Talmud, Sotah 35b.
6. Radak ad loc.
7. I Chronicles 16:8–36.