King David’s Moment of Panic

There is a certain drawback in the fact that Jews are surrounded by the commandments, as they distance a person from his body and cause him to forget the sole commandment that cannot be removed upon entry into the bathhouse.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

“The Children of Israel are beloved by God, who has surrounded them with mitzvot [commandments]: the tefillin [phylactery] that one places on one’s head, the tefillin that one places on one’s arm, the mezuzah that one places beside one’s front door and the tzitzit [fringes] on the four corners of one’s garment. Concerning these commandments, [King] David said, ‘Seven times a day do I praise thee, because of thy righteous ordinances’ ‏(Psalms 119:164‏)” ‏(Sifre Va’etchanan: Menachot, p. 43b‏).

The verse from the Book of Psalms refers to the seven times each day that the persona of the poem or psalm − in this case, King David − praises God. The midrash, however, concretizes David’s declaration, and the typological narrator acquires new meaning. The two types of tefillin and mezuzah described in this week’s reading − together with the four fringes on a man’s garment − constitute the seven commandments with which God surrounds his children, one of whom is, of course, King David. Each time David performs one of the seven commandments, he praises God.

After making this declaration, the midrash continues: “David entered the bathhouse and, realizing that he was naked, cried out, ‘Alas, I am naked of commandments.’ Then he looked at his circumcision and began to create a song of praise about it, as it is written, ‘For the Leader; on the Sheminith. A Psalm of David’ ‏(Pss. 12:1‏).” The midrash thus tersely provides the broad outlines of an entire existential drama that King David experiences. The seven commandments surrounding him are more than just functional means intended to help him fulfill God’s will; they are also an integral part of his identity.

When he enters the bathhouse, David, realizing he is naked, is struck with fear and cries: “Alas, I am naked of commandments.” He is not saddened by the fact that someone has caught him without the seven commandments because there is no one else in the bathhouse: He is saddened because he is naked, without any clothes − including his regal garments, which symbolize the fact that he has been crowned king of Israel − and without the seven commandments that usually surround him. This is a moment that disengages a person from the context he has built for himself, and in which he knows himself and his Maker. David’s identity is dependent on the objects that normally encircle him and, when they are not present, he is panic-stricken. The fear passes, however, when David looks at his circumcision, that is, at his circumcised penis.

He then begins to formulate a song of praise for his circumcision, and the midrash supplies the reader with the particular psalm that David recites at this dramatic moment: Psalm 12, which begins, “For the Leader; on the Sheminith. A Psalm of David.” Literally, “sheminith” refers to a musical instrument, apparently one with eight strings ‏(shmoneh is “eight” in Hebrew‏). This is presumably the musical instrument on which this psalm was played. However, in their homily, our sages interpret sheminith as the eighth commandment − as an act normally performed eight days after a Jewish male has been born. This is the sole commandment that is not left outside the bathhouse with the other seven commandments.

The everyday situation of being naked in a bathhouse gives the midrash the opportunity to consider the question of a person’s identity when he is outside his usual framework. When one is “naked of commandments,” all he has is his nude body. But for his part, David recognizes in his own naked body his lost link with God. ‏(This midrash is perhaps an indirect answer to Paul’s argument regarding the contrast between the Israel of the flesh and the Israel of the spirit.‏)

The purpose of the tefillin, the mezuzah and the tzitzit is to preserve memory. A person puts on tefillin to “bind them [God’s words] for a sign upon thy hand” ‏(Deuteronomy 6:6,8‏) and so that God’s words “shall be for frontlets between thine eyes” ‏(Deut. 6:6,8‏); He fixes a mezuzah on a doorpost in accordance with the commandment, “And thou shalt write them [God’s words] upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates” ‏(Deut. 6:6,9‏); and he wears fringes in order to observe the commandment, “And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them” ‏(Numbers 15:39‏).

Whereas these seven commandments are signs that are meant to arouse a person’s memory, the primary goal of the commandment of circumcision is not mental stimulation. A penis is generally covered by garments; the circumcision is thus not intended to be exposed or to remind a person of the need to observe God’s commandments.

The patriarch Abraham is commanded by God: “every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt me and you” ‏(Genesis 17:10-11‏). The tefillin, the mezuzah and the tzitzit are means to an end, and can theoretically ‏(but not in praxis, of course‏) be discarded once the person has been reminded of his obligation toward God. In contrast, circumcision serves no external goal. It is “a token of a covenant”; it does not serve as a reminder of the connection between man and God, but is itself the connection.

The midrash opens with the declaration, “The Children of Israel are beloved by God, who has surrounded them with mitzvot.” However, judging from what follows in the midrash, it could be said that the declaration is slightly ironic because there is a certain drawback in the fact that Jews are surrounded by the commandments, as they distance a person from his body and cause him to forget the sole commandment that cannot be removed upon entry into the bathhouse. In the midrash, the human body becomes the source of an identity that is not dependent on external aid; it is also a source of identity that, in David’s case, becomes a source for literary creativity.

The Hebrew word milah has another meaning, other than “circumcision”: It also means “a word,” either spoken or written. Psalm 12, which, according to the midrash, was inspired by David’s looking at his circumcision, is concerned with this second meaning, with the concept of the word − in this case, the spoken word. The narrator of Psalm 12 is critical of people who “speak falsehood every one with his neighbor; with flattering lip, and with a double heart, do they speak” ‏(Pss. 12:3‏). Their false words are in sharp contrast with the “words of the Lord [which] are pure words, as silver tried in a crucible on the earth, refined seven times” ‏(Pss. 12:7‏).

The word milah as connotes circumcision is also associated here with the second meaning of this noun: a word, namely, God’s word. Strangely enough, in the bathhouse, where he finds himself naked, or bereft, of the seven commandments that normally surround him, David arrives at a profound understanding of the divine image in which he was created; he arrives at the very point of the brit, the covenant, between heaven and earth.

“Isaac’s Circumcision,” from the Regensburg Pentateuch (c. 1300)