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WHO IS THE GREATEST HERO?

Friday, 10 September, 2021 - 2:17 pm

David wakes up late for a very important business meeting. He rushes through his shower, gulps down breakfast, and jumps into his car, and of course, gets stuck in traffic. When he finally arrives, he can't find any parking. He looks and looks, but there is simply nothing available. He drives around the block once, twice, three times, and finally, completely exasperated, he turns to G-d: "G-d if you give me a parking spot, I promise, I will go to the temple every Saturday morning, I will never lie again, and I will donate half of the profits of this meeting to charity." Instantly, the car next to him pulls out. “Uh, G-d? The deal is off. I just found one by myself!"


You see, there are moments of clarity when we turn to G-d and depend on His help; but then when things are good again, we forget.


Some of Judaism’s greatest heroes and holiest persons are surprisingly unsung and largely unknown. And some of Judaism’s most courageous moral and personal accomplishments are not performed in public fanfare, but rather in the intimate space of one’s life. I want to introduce you today to one of those heroes and tell you about one of those accomplishments. His name was Palti the son of Layish, and he was a biblical figure who lived in the times of King David.


There is a beautiful verse we sing each Friday night in Eshet chayil  “Charm is false and beauty is vain; a woman who fears G-d, she should be praised.” This was written by King Solomon, the wisest of all men is something we can all appreciate as true. Charm and beauty can be skin-deep and can’t serve as the foundation of a good and happy marriage. It is the inner values and character traits of the person which allow a relationship to flourish.


However, today I want to discuss the Talmud’s interpretation of this verse: The Talmud tells us:


“’ Charm is false’ refers to Joseph and his withstanding the seduction of Potiphar's wife; ‘beauty is vain’ refers to Boaz and his not having relations with Ruth; ‘a woman who fears G-d, she should be praised’ refers to Palti.”


Joseph overcame the ‘false charm’ of Potiphar’s wife. He was alone in Egypt. His brothers betrayed him, and his father thought he was dead. No one would have ever found out. He was a slave and had absolutely no reputation or position to protect. By disobeying his master’s wife, he could end up in a dungeon for the rest of his life. Yet he withstood the test. Boaz too abstained from Ruth’s ‘beauty’ until legalizing his marriage to her. Yet among these great men, the greatest of them all was Palti, who displayed true ‘fear of G-d and he should be praised,’ far more than Joseph or Boaz.


These three incidents were perhaps the three greatest temptations in the realm of intimacy in the entire Torah, the three greatest lusts, and the three most accessible sins. In each case, the one tempted to sin showed unbelievable inner strength and withstood man’s greatest craving.


Joseph and Boaz are familiar figures in the Bible. But what was the story of the third? What did he do? Just who was Palti?

 

If you recall the famous story of David and Goliath, King Saul had promised that the man who killed the giant Philistine warrior Goliath would earn the hand of his beautiful daughter, Michal. However, after David did kill Goliath, he subsequently became extremely popular for his military successes—much more so than Saul himself—and Saul was consumed with jealousy and hatred for David and wanted out of his promise. He gave David an impossible task: Slay single handedly 100 Philistines and bring me the evidence. (The Philistines were the mortal enemies of the Jews. They were a nation bent on the annihilation of the Jewish people.) Saul thought that David might be killed in the process, and hence he would be rid of his rival while keeping his own hands clean, but David outdid himself and killed 200 Philistines, and married Michal the daughter of Saul.


Then Saul argued that based on a legal technicality the marriage was null and void. He went ahead and married Michal off instead to a man named Palti.


Palti was now faced with the following impossible situation: He could not dare refuse King Saul especially on this extremely sensitive matter; he had to take her as a wife. Yet, he personally disagreed with Saul’s position and felt that Michal was a married woman. She was betrothed to David.


What happened next is truly remarkable and stands alone as one of the greatest acts—if not the greatest—of self-control in the entire biblical history. Michal and Palti lived together for many years as husband and wife, and, by the king’s orders, shared a bedroom (and even a bed), yet Palti did not even touch her once. And Michal was one of the most beautiful women of her time.


Now, Saul’s arguments that legalized this marriage were compelling and supported by the King’s own Supreme Rabbinical Court. Saul was a great Torah scholar and had a very convincing position. This was not a black-and-white moral decision, but a gray, controversial area, with great scholars on either side of the argument. Palti could have easily—in a moment of passion—rationalized his way out of the prohibition and could have hardly been blamed for doing so. Only Palti’s own inner conscience prevented him, not public opinion.


He was faced with the greatest of all physical temptations, night after night, for many years, and not once did he succumb to his instincts, not once did he lose control. I know what you are thinking: How is this humanly possible? What is the secret of such self-control?

 

The Talmud tells us: Palti took a sword and plunged it into the bed between them and proclaimed: If either one of us engages in marital relations, they will be stabbed by the sword.  The sword remained there throughout all the years of their ‘marriage.’


Now although an extremely dramatic and noble gesture, this seems pointless. As we say in Talmudic learning, either way, you look at it, it does not make sense: If the sin will be consensual if both get caught up in mutual attraction, then who will be the one to wield the sword? And if either one of them refuses, there is anyway no need for the sword.

The answer is powerful and relevant to us today:


Palti was, in the bedroom, that first night, with a woman whom he felt was married to another man, to David. At that moment, Palti knew what was right and what was wrong. At that instant, he knew, clear as day, that this was just immoral, unethical, and grotesque. On that first night, he had his priorities straight and clear in his mind and heart: he knew and felt with every fiber of his being that Michal was totally off-limits. She was not his wife. Period.


But Palti also knew himself, and he knew human nature. He knew that as time went on, as the days, months, and years passed, those strong convictions might dissipate. He knew that in a moment of passion and lust, he might come up with a legal loophole, he would find an excuse. He would never hold out. If throughout history great men have failed in this exact arena, risking and losing everything because of it, how much more so Palti, who had absolutely nothing to lose, as the king himself had married him off to this woman. He had nothing to lose except his own self-respect and integrity.


Exactly then, he said to himself, "I need an eternal reminder of this moment’s clarity; I need to immortalize my own identification of truth."


That is why he plunged his sword into his bed. Now, even in the mindless heat of passion, he can gaze at that sword and abstain, not because of what he feels now, but because of what he felt then when he etched the sword into the bed.  He will remember who he once was, and he will be able to say to himself, “That is who I really still am. That is what I still truly believe in my heart of hearts. That is the self I need to aspire to be and to which I will now return.”


When inspiration and moral clarity would be replaced by a temptation that knows how to eclipse what you truly feel deep inside, Palti and Michal would gaze at the etched sword. They would remember that there was a time it was crystal clear to them that to engage in intimacy would be equal to a death sentence, it would be a stab in the heart of their souls. They would recall how certain they were then that to enjoy relations would be a form of spiritual, moral, psychological, and emotional suicide. This would help them abstain from sin even now when they can't see that reality any longer.

 

The late Reb Shlomo used to travel around the world to give concerts. Once he visited a small town in eastern Europe, after the collapse of the Former Soviet Union. Unlike most people he met, the people of this town wanted nothing to do with him. They were cold, distant. All except for one man. R. Shlomo found one man who was loving, open, accepting. He spent some time with this man, and before he was about to leave, R. Shlomo asked him the question that had been burning inside him.


“There is something I need to know. I understand the people of this town. I realize why they want nothing to do with a singing Rabbi from the west. After all, they were devastated by the Holocaust. Then they lived for close to fifty years under the jackboot of communism. I understand their anger. What I don’t understand is you. Why are you so loving, why are you so different?”


The man smiled. “I know why, and I can tell you when it happened. I am an old man, and I have lived in this town my entire life. And I recall one night before the first World War, a rumor swept through the town that there would be a pogrom. We were told that the Cossacks were coming, and they would loot, pillage, steal and destroy. All the parents from the entire town gathered up all the children and brought us to the Rabbi’s house. It was the dead of winter.


Scattered throughout the Rabbi’s house where all the children of the village, sleeping on his floor, in the kitchen, the living room, the study. The Rabbi paced up and down all night looking out for the children as we slept. I was curled up in a small corner of the Rabbi’s study. He thought I was sleeping. But I could not sleep because it was bitter cold. The Rabbi came up behind me and slipped his cloak off his shoulders, and he laid it over me and said, ‘Good child, sweet child.’”


“You know,” said the man to R. Shlomo, “It has been seventy-five years since the Rabbi spread his coat over me – but it still keeps me warm…

 

Friends, this Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called the Shabbat of Teshuva, of return.


Every person has, at some point in his/her life, a moment of clarity. A time when right and wrong are as clear as day and night when he or she sees life’s murkier judgment calls with a proper and pure perspective.


There is the moment when you know: I should be devoting more time to my family and less to my career. Those are the times when you look at your spouse and say, “How lucky I am that I married such a special person. How perfect he/she is and how grateful I am for having them.”


Or when you stand in the synagogue and have a revelation: “I should care and nurture my soul and my spirituality more. I should invest in what really matters in life, in the eternal matters of the spirit and not just in the transient matters of materialism.”


For many, this occurs during the High Holidays when we reflect on the innermost parts of the self. On Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, we are often struck with the clarity of vision and clarity of heart: “This is who I really should be. These are my real priorities, my true goals in life”.


Palti ben Layish is telling us: To really change, seize those unique moments when you are given clarity. Immortalize them. Take a snapshot of yourself at that time and frame it and hang it up on the walls of your heart, or better yet, on the walls of your bedroom. Revisit it in your loneliest moments, at times when you struggle to define your real values.


After a hard day at the office, at a moment of friction between you and your wife, at a time when you are tempted to slip, let us revisit “the sword of Palti.”


This is real Teshuva. Teshuva means returning, not reinventing. Returning to ourselves. To our deeper sense of right and wrong, to our inner soul-integrity, to our own spark of G-dliness. To our own sword of Palti.

 

And know that you are not alone. When Palti resurfaces later in the Book of Samuel his name is changed to Palti-el. El is a name of G-d. G-d had attached His name to Palti’s, G-d had helped Palti in his struggle, G-d had ensured that Palti did not walk alone.

May G-d walk with us. Amen.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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