20: David

  • Rav Ezra Bick


This week's shiurim are dedicated
in memory of Mr. Harry Meisels, Elchanan ben R. Yitzchak, A"H,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 26th of Adar.



Speedily cause the plant (offspring) of Your servant David to grow (flourish);

And let his horn be exalted by Your salvation;

For we hope for Your salvation all day.

Blessed are You, HaShem, Who causes the horn of salvation to grow.



A. Translation


            This was a very difficult berakha to translate, because of the repeated use of metaphoric language. The berakha is clearly about salvation ("yeshua"), a word repeated three times. This is also referred to as "tzemach David," which I translated literally as the "plant of David." Commentators on the use of this phrase in the prophet Yeshayahu interpret it to refer to a future descendant of David, future growth of the ancient plant, as it were - and hence I added in parentheses "offspring." Since the noun is "tzemach David," the verb "tatzmiach" (to cause to grow) is used.


            A second metaphor is "the horn ("keren") - of David." This is interpreted as "glory" or "might," referring to the horn of an animal, raised proudly before it. We shall examine the Biblical sources for these phrases below.


            In the "chatima," these two metaphors are mixed - God is described as He Who causes the horn to grow - together with a literal reference to salvation, and we get a phrase built out of all three expressions used - "matzmiach keren yeshua."


            Our question then is, what is the meaning of these metaphors and, more importantly, why are they used in the Shemona Esrei? Why is precisely this berakha characterized by the use of metaphors rather than the usual straightforward literal language we find in most other berakhot? Why precisely is the salvation associated with the kingdom of David - in other words, the messiah - described as a growing plant?


B. Tzemach


            The phrases in this berakha are taken from verses.


            Psalms 132 speaks about the building of the Temple by David. After David is successful, God says to him:


God has sworn to David, in truth from which He will not turn -

From the fruit of your body will I place upon your throne....

For God has chosen Zion, desired it as His habitation.

This is My resting-place forever;

Here will I dwell for I have desired it....


I have arranged a lamp for My anointed.

(Ps. 132. 11-18).


            We have here both the growing and the horn metaphors, together as in the chatima of our berakha.


            This is not the only place where the salvation of Israel is described as a growing.


In that day I will grow a horn for the house of Israel (Ez. 29,21).


Behold, the days are coming, says God, and I will raise up for David a righteous plant (Jer. 23,5). 


In those days, and in that time, I will grow for David a plant of righteousness (Jer. 33, 15).


            It turns out that nearly all references in Tanakh to "tzemach" which are not actually talking about vegetation refer to the salvation of God, specifically the coming of the messiah, the scion of David. It will therefore not surprise us to learn that "tzemach" is a proper name of the messiah:


Hear now, Yehoshua the High Priest, you and your friends who sit before you, though they be amazing men, for behold I will bring My servant Tzemach.

... Behold a man, his name is Tzemach, and from him will grow, and he will build the temple of God. (Zech. 3,8; 6,12).


(I do not wish to fool you - most commentators interpret these verses, or at least large parts of them - to refer to Zerubavel, who was responsible for the beginning of the construction of the SECOND Temple. Nonetheless, it indicates that the connotation "tzemach" refers to a redeemer, the scion of David. Not surprisingly, the Sages use these verses to refer to the Messiah.)


            The future salvation of Israel is consistently described with the noun "tzemach" (a plant, something which is growing) and the verb "lihatzmiach" (to make something grow). That this is not just Tanakh's way of saying, "will come to happen," is clear when we realize that other future things are not described this way. Therefore, our first task is to understand what is "tzemach."


C. Value and Process


            Our minds are wired to judge states. When we evaluate a situation, or compare two situations, we do so by giving an absolute value to each. This state is worth ten points, this state eleven, and therefore the second is worth more than the first. Why should one strive to reach the second? Because, obviously, it is worth more than the first. An obvious example is school. How much is a student worth, how good a student is he? We measure his accomplishments with a test and give him a mark. Now the problem here is not that tests are not accurate or do not measure enough factors. That is obvious, and presents a PRACTICAL problem with absolute value, which can be ameliorated by giving more accurate and subtle tests and improving out evaluation methods. A good teacher is aware that his testing method is not accurate enough, but that does not undermine the goal of the test, which is to evaluate what level of achievement a student has reached. To eliminate the practical difficulties in testing, let us give a different example, one where the testing is perfect and omnipotent - God. On judgment day, we imagine, God will WEIGH each individual, to see how much he is worth. The image of a scale is used frequently by the Sages to express judgment (see Rosh HaShana 17a).


            There is a different problem with absolute value, and this is a problem of basic evaluation, not how well we have evaluated, but what it is that we are evaluating. A simple example:


            I have two students. One is bright, industrious and consistently gets marks in the high nineties. The other is slow, dull, easily distracted, and barely manages to pass his tests. At some point in the term, through determined effort, he manages to show some real improvement and pulls a 75 on a test. The first student has gotten his usual 95.


            Now I still know that the first is a "better" student. He knows more and has actually learned more. But something tells me that there is a special value that was achieved by the second, a value expressed not in the absolute state that he has reached but in the progress he has made. The movement from 60 to 75 has a value that is not present in the maintenance of a consistent 95. That is a value that exists not on any absolute scale but on a scale that measures process, movement, and progress.


            An indication of how wedded we are to the absolute measure of value is the fact that in order to express his appreciation of the second value, a teacher might add five points to the second students average, thereby rewarding him for his effort and progress. By doing so, he has evaluated progress as though it were an absolute value in itself. On the absolute scale of one-to-one-hundred, progress is worth an additional five points. But my point is, and I think this is what was our initial reaction to the situation, that progress is measured on a different scale altogether than absolute value. What was present in the second student was totally absent in the first and the two TYPES of value are incommensurate. Appreciating progress is appreciating the value in a process, in movement, in improvement, and that is a different type of appreciation than that found in evaluating absolute value.


            The Zohar expresses this distinction in a comparison between the angels, who are called "omdim," standing, and humans, who are called "mehalkhim," walking. Obviously, the angels are on a higher level, measured absolutely, than humans. They "stand" on a higher level. But people are "moving," and even though they are presently on a much lower level than the angels, the very fact that they are moving TOWARDS a higher level (which will also be lower than the absolute level of the angels) gives them a value unattained - in fact, unattainable - by the angels. Jewish history begins with the command to Abraham to "go!" Abraham is described as "holekh" (walking) and as "mithalekh," and "halokh ve-nose'a," implying a continuous reflexive state of movement. God, in fact, commands him, "walk before Me AND BE PERFECT." In this, the ideal of the value of process is most clearly expressed. Perfection is usually understood as the highest state. God is perfection. For Abraham, perfection is "walking before God."


            This relationship between Man and God explains the necessity of this type of value. If Man is measured on an absolute scale, he will always be found wanting, for the absolute scale is measured against God. A perfect mark in the course of existence, at least for man who is created in the image of God, is not 100, and not 1,000,000 but infinity. To be perfect is to "be like God, knowers of good and evil." To be in God's image and yet be created means not to be perfect, in the Divine sense, but to always strive to attain the perfection of God; in other words, to be constantly yearning and moving towards God. Divine perfection is reflected in the man who is perfecting himself. Although the gulf is infinite and can never be eliminated, the value is in the closing of the gap, even if measured in absolute terms that closing is infinitesimal. In the words of the Sages, "where repentants stand, even completely righteous people do not stand."


            It must be stressed that there is an indissoluble bond between the two types of value, which is the true meaning of "tzelem Elokim," the image of God. Movement without goal is meaningless. What gives value to relative movement is that it is directed towards the absolute value of God. To strive for the unreachable stars is PERFECTION, to move for the sake of movement is meaningless. Were there no absolute value, in other words, were there no God, there could be no relative value in striving, for there would be no direction in which to go. Man is not God, but he is also not merely man. He is man in the image of God, man on the move, towards God, with no limit on how close he can come. Because we value the absolute, that is why we value the relative.


            "Tzemach" refers to this value of process. When we ask for salvation, we are not asking for a particular state, as we do when we ask for food. We want 100 units of food. We want God to bring us back to the Land of Israel. These are values that can be quantified. There is a particular "amount" of health that we need and request. But when we ask for salvation, we are not asking for a particular quantity of something. We are asking for the "tzemicha," the growth of salvation. "God," we say, "cause the plant of salvation to grow," to reach upward, as the horns on the head of the deer. We are, in other words, asking to become part of the process, rather than to achieve a defined, quantified goal. Let salvation grow, get the process started. That is the goal, that is the desired good, the object of our prayers.


D. Salvation


            Why specifically is this berakha chosen to stress the value of development? The answer is found in the berakha itself. We have seen how the "me'ein chatima" of each berakha either is itself the last in a series of requests (as in the previous berakha of Yerushalayim) or has the form of, "for You are He who fulfills this request" (as in the berakhot of health, forgiveness, and redemption-geula). Our berakha seems to have the latter form - "for we hope for Your salvation all day" - in that it begins with the participle "for." Yet the meaning of this final summation seems out of place. We are asking God to save us, because we hope for His salvation? Even more striking is that it does not seem to fulfill the requirement of "me'ein chatima," of recapitulating the closing phrase of the berakha. It should have said - "for You are the savior," or "for You cause salvation to grow."


            The answer is that this phrase is specifically explaining the "matzmiach" of the conclusion. We are not yearning and praying for a given measure of salvation, BECAUSE it is for HIS salvation that we hope all day. In other words, the object of this berakha, the real meaning behind salvation, is God. This is not a prayer to solve a particular political problem. We are not asking for more independence, a better economy, or any other goal of government. We are asking for God to infuse our lives with His presence, thereby transforming our existence. There is no upper limit here, nor could there be, for to ask for any finite amount of salvation would be to not ask for the salvation of God. Therefore, the practical request is for the GROWTH of salvation, the process of salvation, for in the perfecting movement towards God is found the perfection of God. We do not really pray for David, but for God Himself, "for we hope for Your salvation all day." Hence, what we want is the growth of the plant of David, the raising of his horn. We want to be walking on the path of salvation - for that is the perfection of Divine salvation in human lives.


            This is the difference between this berakha, the fifteenth - yeshua -and the seventh - geula. Redemption refers to particular problems which need to be solved, and therefore is found in the earlier stages of our prayers, before health and prosperity. Geula can be quantified. Salvation is about the human condition, about existential mortality. To be human is to require salvation, for we wish to be as God, Who knows good and evil. That yearning for the impossible star is the prayer for the messiah.


E. Yerushalayim and David


            I must admit that I have just reversed the relationship between the last two berakhot from what I claimed in the previous shiur. Last time I claimed that the berakha of Yerushalayim was spiritual and the berakha of David was political. But now, in retrospect, I think that the exact opposite is true. The previous berakha spoke of God returning to Yerushalayim, which is expressed in specific goals - building the Temple, the throne of David. We want God to do things for us, which, it is true, is based on the Presence of God in the city of God, but those things are nonetheless quantified and specific. The Temple, the Divine Presence as expressed in the temple, and yes, the political organization of the Jewish state as expressed by the throne of David. The second berakha, which we are examining this week, is about salvation, not about government. It is not about the throne of David, but the growth of David. In the previous berakha, we yearned for the Temple; in this one, we hope for the "Your salvation."


F. Messiah


            The dialectical relationship between perfection and perfecting, the perfection of God and the perfecting of man moving towards God, is inherent in the concept of the messiah and the messianic era. On the one hand, the belief that history moves forward towards a goal is inherent in Judaism. That goal must be perfection, for just as each individual man and woman was created in the image of God, so too was Man, society, mankind, created in the image of God. How can history aim at perfection? On the one hand we believe that there will be a messianic era. On the other hand, we must not lose sight of the fact that that is not merely a belief in a future state, a mere intellectual apprehension of what will be. That yearning for the future is translated into a constant movement in the present, into a stirring of life in the "plant of David." Messianism is the difference between stagnancy - at no matter what exalted level - and life, movement, progress, yearning, and hope. "For Your salvation we hope ALL DAY." The messiah of the future defines the direction we face today. We are looking and hoping in that direction. With God's help in response to our prayers, we are MOVING in that direction. This is the crown of the berakhot of requests. After we ask for all the specific things we need, we ask for God to put us on the path of infinite progress towards His salvation. After all the conditions of life, we ask for life itself.