The Challenge of the Tzadik

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

Intuitively, we know what makes the tzadik unique. We know he reflects a dedication to Torah, a lifestyle governed by mitzvos, a passion for yediyas Hashem, knowledge of God. These are all true. Yet there are situations that emerge, which bring to light in a different manner how the tzadik stands apart from the rest of mankind. Through a criticism of Dovid Hamelech, Chazal help demonstrate to us a unique expectation of the tzadik, and how we should aspire to act and react accordingly. 

After the conquest of the Plishtim, the aron hakodesh (the Holy Ark) returns back to Dovid Hamelech and the Jewish people. In a fateful move, Dovid does the following with the aron (Shmuel Bet 6:3):

“And they set the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was in the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drove the new cart.”

As they began the trek with the aron back to Ir Dovid, an interesting scene is depicted (ibid 5):

“And David and all the house of Israel played (mesachakim) before the LORD with all manner of instruments made of cypress-wood, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with sistra, and with cymbals.”

Soon after, a tragedy ensues. One of the cattle pulling the wagon stumbles. Uzzah, who was escorting the aron, reaches out to prevent it from potentially falling, and touches the aron. God reacts by killing Uzzah (why he deserved death is not the subject of this article). Dovid reacts strongly to this death (ibid 8):

“And David was displeased (charah), because the LORD had broken forth upon Uzzah; and that place was called Perez-uzzah, unto this day.”

Immediately after, Dovid questions whether he can be responsible for the aron. The aron is then stored in the home of a prominent Levi, and after three months, Dovid returns to escort it once again to Ir Dovid. In this instance, we see a different description of how they accompanied the aron (ibid 12):

“…And David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David with joy (simcha).”


Dovid’s reaction to the death of Uzzah is quite puzzling. If God killed Uzzah, one can certainly assume it was for a justifiable reason. This is not to say that he should not have been disappointed. But what was really troubling Dovid Hamelech?

The Talmud introduces a perspective to this incident that, in a sense, blows this whole area wide open (Sotah 35a):

“Raba expounded: Why was David punished? Because he called words of Torah ‘songs’, as it is said: Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘Words of Torah, of which it is written: Wilt thou set thine eyes upon it? It is gone, thou recitest as songs! I will cause thee to stumble in a matter which even school-children know.’ For it is written: But unto the sons of Kohath he gave none, because the service of the sanctuary etc.; and yet [David] brought it in a wagon.”

A further elucidation is in order here. The context of Dovid referring to the words of Torah as zemiros is critical to understanding this story. Rashi explains that Dovid made this statement as he was running and hiding from his enemies. It is not that he sang the words of Torah. Instead, according to Rashi, the words of Torah brought pleasure and solace to him much like songs bring pleasure and solace to people. Nonetheless, God indeed punishes Dovid, the punishment being that Uzzah died due to his mistake. And the mistake was that instead of having Leviim carry the aron, as clearly commanded in the Torah, Dovid placed it on a wagon. 

Prima facie, it seems hard to believe Dovid Hamelech was being punished for his “behavior” when he was being pursued by his enemies. He sought the refuge of Torah – what could be wrong with that? We also need to understand the nature of this punishment. Why did God wait so much time, to this very moment of reclaiming the aron hakodesh, to punish Dovid Hamelech? Finally, we must understand the link in the flaw between what Dovid did when he was fleeing and what he did by choosing to place the aron on a wagon, rather than carry it.

To add one more question to the chulent, the Redak offers a very rational and reasonable answer as to Dovid’s error with the aron. Dovid was quite aware of the commandment that the aron only be carried, rather than placed on a wagon. However, he reasoned that this was a relativistic commandment. During the sojourn of Bnai Yisrael through the desert, the Mishkan was constructed and re-constructed, a portable makom hamikdash. As such, the different parts were transported on wagons. Dovid Hamelech deduced that the reason the aron had to be carried by people instead of placed on wagons was to distinguish the aron hakodesh from the other vessels and parts of the mishkan. However, in this situation, there was the aron and nothing else – therefore, he saw no error or sin in placing it on the wagon. 

This interpretation seems to run completely counter to the criticism Chazal write concerning Dovid Hamelech. How do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing views?

The first step here is to understand the context of the flaw being described in the Talmud. To say that God simply “blinded” Dovid Hamelech to this most basic halacha is difficult to swallow (putting aside the position of the Redak). Instead, one can assume there was a flaw present in Dovid Hamelech when he related to the Torah as songs. This flaw emerged, albeit in a different form, at the time the aron hakodesh was recaptured. In other words, the event of the aron was a moment that brought this flaw into the open. God’s involvement was aiding in the development of this scenario to allow for this flaw to potentially emerge. Dovid Hamelech could, of course, have avoided the tragic result of his error – yet we see through his choice of the wagon that this indeed would not be the case. We also can take one more step based on this line of reasoning. From a strict, logical standpoint, Dovid construed a reasonable argument for placing the aron on the wagon. However, the question is what motivated him to this conclusion. For some reason, as we will try to explain, his focus was on making sure the wagon, rather than people, was used. Therefore, his motivation is the focus here, rather than the strength of his argument.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the initial flaw described by the Talmud. As we mentioned above, this seems like a very difficult flaw to ascertain. What did Dovid “do wrong”? Rashi emphasizes how Dovid was seeking solace through the Torah. In essence, what Rashi is saying is that Dovid had a self-serving, emotional motivation for engaging in Torah. Rather than seeking out ideas for their value alone, and then experiencing the gratification that naturally emerges from this experience, Dovid Hamelech wanted the Torah to serve as the escape from his emotional insecurities, to give him comfort in this extreme time in his life. Much like a song soothes a nervous child, so too the words of Torah would soothe Dovid. Of course, at this point one should ask, “What do you expect from him?” It is possible that this is exactly the point of the Talmud. In a normal scenario, one does not necessarily see the differentiation between the average and the talmid chacham, between the majority and those few tzadikim. When our emotions are not challenged, when we are not in an extreme situation, it is much easier to live and act in line with derech Hashem. However, when we are confronted with extreme situations, whether it be elation or dejection, our emotional state is taxed and we must now be able to set the emotions aside and act in line with truth. This is what separates the great tzadik from others. Our great leaders, such as Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu, demonstrated their separation from the masses through their ability to react properly in challenging emotional situations. Time and again, they were able to align their emotions with truth, and not attach any ulterior motive to their actions. One great example of this is Aharon’s reaction to his sons’ death in Parshas Shemini – he is silent, accepting the verdict and focusing on his position as kohen gadol. This does not mean they are supermen, worthy of worship. Being human, they are subject to error, and Chazal point out numerous times where these errors emerge. Dovid Hamelech was in an extreme situation, and he allowed his emotional state to distort how he should approach Torah. When a distortion enters into the picture, one’s attachment to Torah becomes more tenuous. As such, Dovid Hamelech was unable to act as someone on his level needed to act when faced with an emotionally challenging situation.

This idea plays out in the scenario with the aron hakodesh. Dovid Hamelech went from a point in his life of ultimate insecurity to the pinnacle of his kingship, dejection to elation. The aron was now in the hands of the Jewish people, a momentous victory. To show off this important achievement, he gathers thousands of people to witness its return to Ir Dovid. And it was imperative to get the aron back to Ir Dovid as quickly as possible. It was the symbol of the vanquishing of the Plishtim, the ultimate trophy of war, a validation of Dovid’s kingship. This is embodied in their playful behavior in front of the aron – rather than be in awe and express simcha, they were mesachakim. In order to ensure a speedy return, yet isolate the aron as something of importance, a wagon would be the logical choice. He wanted the wagon, and developed a rationale to reach this conclusion. What we see from this depiction is one crucial point – the aron hakodesh was not serving its role. It was not being related to exclusively as the ultimate expression of hasgachas Hashem, God's providence. Dovid Hamelech therefore perpetuated this distortion, and this led to Uzzah’s fatal error. Yet the underlying idea here is similar to the above. At this point in his reign, when he was at the peak, a sense of elation like no other, he was unable to relate to the aron solely as the vehicle for ideas. His emotions were not in line with his mind, and there was again a self- serving aspect that emerged in this extreme situation. After recognizing his error, Dovid Hamelech realizes he cannot retain the aron at this time, as he senses his flaw must be overcome in order to serve as the example for Bnei Yisrael.

What we can take from all this is how certain moments emerge where the tzadik is able to demonstrate his intense focus on following the derech Hashem, where even the most extreme challenges do not sway him one way or the other. No doubt, this is a very high level to achieve, and few of us can even identify with such a situation and subsequent reaction. Regardless, Chazal teach us in this incident with Dovid Hamelech the importance of our emotions being in line with our minds, and how the smallest slip up in the most strenuous of situations can far reaching consequences.