Shavuot is the only holiday that marks the death of a major Jewish figure. We might expect that it would be Moses because he is closely connected to the giving of the Torah celebrated on this holiday. To our surprise, it is King David, not Moses, who died on Shavuot! Furthermore, David is also connected to the end of grain harvest that marks this holiday. Why should this be the case?
A legend goes that David had a prophecy that he would die on Shabbat. He made it his practice to learn Torah consistently at night to thwart the Angel of Death. His perfect concentration on Torah kept the Angel of Death from being able to get at him. Finally, in David’s old age, on a Sabbath that is also Shavuot, the Angel became frustrated and began shaking the tree branch outside David’s window. David came out to see what was going on, slipped on the top step of the garden stairs, and fell into the arms of the Angel of Death.
Another midrash tells us that King David started the custom of learning Torah in the late hours of night. He would sing praises to God until midnight and then, at the chiming of a string from the harp above his bed, he would gain the strength of a lion and immerse himself in Torah learning until dawn. Perhaps this is the true origin of keeping a vigil with the Torah until the early hours of the Shavuot morning.
How is the grain harvest connected to David? In the final year of David’s life, this transition of spring into summer was also the last season of David’s life on earth. Scholars suggest that the Assyrian god Tammuz was an agricultural god who was basically viewed as the power in the grain, dying when the grain was milled. Jewish custom was to bind 50 sheaves of wheat on each of the 50 days of the harvest beginning on Pesach. At the end of the harvest, the entire field is leveled.
Tammuz was characterized as a romantic and tragic figure. Could it be that David is the romantic and tragic figure in his own right who is also the perfect symbol of the harvested grain? We mourn him the anniversary of his death, Shavuot, but we also celebrate his birthday. We pray that the grain will return next year. Just as the grain returns again and again after it is harvested, we say of David: David melekh Yisrael chai vekayam; David, king of Israel, lives forever.
We remember David for his love of Torah. It was David who danced before the Ark of the Covenant when it was brought to Jerusalem. We remember David as the cycle of death and birth. But to get to know David intimately is to know his psalms. Psalm literature hearkens back to the earliest texts of the Torah that sing God’s praises and speak of Torah. The pure emotion of dread and gladness, fear and love, belief and non-belief fills out the picture of the romantic king.
In the 23rd psalm, David pictures God as a shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing that I lack; He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me besides the still waters; He restores my soul.” The first three verses establish David’s creatureliness — he pictures himself as God’s sheep. Then comes the troubling verse: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” This describes David’s emotions in the midst of a mortal struggle. David does not walk into the valley of the shadow of death, he walks through it. Like the faithful of Israel who made their way through the desert to receive the Torah from the fiery mountain, David was no sheep; he walked proud, brave and tall. pjc
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is the spiritual leader of New Light Congregation.