Help from On-High
Growing up watching professional athletes engage in prayer rituals prior to performing, I used to wonder whether Divine attention wouldn’t be more warranted elsewhere, addressing infant mortality, starvation, or human suffering. More recently, I have come to look differently upon pointing heavenward after a home run or touchdown, because it introduces a measure of humility, sharing credit for God-given talents that might otherwise be taken for granted. Praying thank you after the feat feels less fraught than praying please beforehand.
This week’s Haftorah, King David’s poem of praise, presents his military prowess and personal piety in full view. Unlike the poet in our Torah portion, Moses, David has never been singled-out for his humility. Our season’s penitent agenda makes David an even more curious protagonist.
Erica Brown, in her new book Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe (still just as worthwhile with the High Holy Days behind us), describes David’s failed attempt to repair his relationship with his estranged son Absalom. After five years of not speaking, “He came to the king and flung himself to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom.” (2 Sam. 14:33) Yet in the very next chapters, we learn that Absalom sets himself up as an alternate, competing ruler, threatening his father’s reign. “David’s story reminds us that if we believe teshuva can be achieved in one day of intense prayer,” writes Brown, “we will never really understand what teshuva demands of us: full and total recovery… Recovery is a process, not a singular act. It requires tenderness, commitment, and patience. Yom Kippur may represent the beginning of the process, but it is rarely its end.”
David claims in the Haftorah “For I have kept the ways of the Lord and I have not been guilty before my God.“ (2 Sam. 22:22) But even the traditional commentator Radak nuances this to suggest that the flawed King doesn’t repeat his transgressions. For me, David’s appearance just after the ‘Ten Days of Repentance’, suggest that, as on the battlefield, so too with teshuva, David needs God’s help. The same is so with our efforts at teshuva.
Tomorrow when you recognize that your Yom Kippur resolution from earlier this week is still in play, point heavenward to say thank you – and draw the strength needed to enable you to do the same on the next day.
A sweet Shabbat and Shana to you.
Rabbi William Hamilton