Shavuot, King David, and Ruth

To quote the poet Yehuda Amichai, lately Iíve been thinking a lot about King David. Why? According to Talmudic legend (Chagiga 12a), King David died on Shavuot. Shavuot, the holiday seven weeks after Passover when first fruits and loaves of bread were offered in the Temple, is also the joyful holiday of the revelation of Torah. And, it is the Divine wedding between the Holy One and the Shekhinah, between male and female, between past and future, between the community and the universe. Itís a good time! Why introduce the sadness of Davidís death?

The story of Davidís death goes that David receives a prophecy that he will die on the Sabbath, so every Sabbath he studies Torah all night and all day. His perfect concentration on Torah keeps the Angel of Death from being able to get at him. Finally, in Davidís old age, on a Sabbath that is also Shavuot, the Angel gets frustrated and begins shaking some tree branches outside Davidís window. David comes out to see what is going on, slips on the top step of the garden stairs, and falls. The Angel then takes his soul.

So what does this have to do with Shavuot? Shavuot is the end of the grain harvest, when all the grain is cut down. Traditionally, in the Ancient Near East, this grain is represented by a romantic and tragic male figure, Tammuz (though in Nordic lands Sif, the symbol of the grain, is a woman with long gold hair). King David, who is romantic and tragic in his own right, is the perfect symbol of the harvested grain, and perhaps thatís why we mourn him on Shavuot. Just as the grain returns again and again, we say of David: David melekh Yisrael chai vekayam; David, king of Israel, lives forever. No wonder we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot: this book speaks of how David comes to be born, and also describes the harvest of the grain.

In fact, Ruth, too, is a symbol of the grain: like a seed, she comes to be planted in a new country. She is a staff of life: she brings sustenance to her mother-in-law Naomi who represents the Jewish people, and she marries Boaz, the elderly and generous man who perhaps represents the earth. In union with Boaz, Ruth sustains the nation by giving birth to the messianic line. Ruth brings her baby to the bereaved Naomióthe baby, named Oved (meaning "worker" or "one who makes a sacred offering") symbolizes the new seed. Through this new seed, Ruth miraculously renews the life of the people just as the grain harvest renews human life.

Thereís an added message to the story of David and the Angel of Death, which is that we have to let ourselves die/change in order to really learn Torah. In the story, David studies Torah so that the Angel of Death cannot attack him, but by doing so, David resists necessary change. The Angel shakes a living tree at David to remind him that as the Torah changes yet lives forever, David too can change and yet live forever. This allows Davidís soul to release its hold. David is the Torah, reborn in us every year after trials and tribulations. As we enter Shavuot, may we too learn to let go and let our deepest wisdom be reborn.

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