By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
My first visit to Israel was in 1978 when I was seventeen years old. As a teen on his first trip away from home, I was cynical and more interested in adventure than in any serious endeavors. I certainly had no interest in investigating my Jewish roots. The group was scheduled for a pre-dawn hike to the top of Masada, after which we went to the Ein Gedi Spring. It was a lot of hiking on difficult trails but we were young and full of energy, and the spring was a welcome relief from the desert heat.
Ein Gedi is actually a fairly large site. It is a shocking splash of green on the shore of the aptly named Dead Sea. The water was delightful but the guide, a middle-aged secular Israeli, insisted on taking us up into the dry walls of the ravine overlooking the wadi.
She led us to a small plateau overlooking the main area of the spring.
“This is the plateau where David camped out when Saul was trying to kill him,” she said, quoting a verse from Samuel.
When Shaul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told that David was in the wilderness of Ein Gedi. So Shaul took three thousand picked men from all Yisrael and went in search of David and his men in the direction of the rocks of the wild goats; I Samuel 24:2-3
I interrupted. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “Do you mean that this is what the authors of the Bible had in mind when they wrote about the fictional characters David and Saul?”
She gave me a strange look. “They were real people and this is precisely where they stood,” she said. “Look around. This is the only plateau that overlooks the spring. This is where David camped out.”
I looked around. The plateau was maybe one hundred yards square. I was literally walking in David’s footsteps. And the wild goats were still there. That was the first of many experiences I had that connected me directly with the land of the Bible.
But what exactly happened between David and Saul at that site?
The Bible records that David hid from Saul in the wilderness of Ein Gedi. After Saul was tipped off as to the whereabouts of David’s hideout, Saul arrived at Ein Gedi with three-thousand soldiers, planning to destroy David once and for all. Saul went into a cave alone to relieve himself, unaware that David was hiding there (I Samuel 24:4). Though presented with the opportunity, David did not kill Saul. Instead, he cut off a piece of Saul’s royal garment and then confronted the king, stating that he had the chance to kill him but did not. Saul broke down and wept, hugging David and wishing him only well… until the next time he sought to kill him again.
Though David’s men tried to encourage him to kill Saul, David chose to show restraint and respect for the king of Israel, despite being continually chased by him.
Psalm 57 is David’s reaction to this incidenet. David calls out to God asking for mercy as Saul pursued him in Ein Gedi, but his phrasing of this plea is distinctive:
Have mercy on me, O Hashem, have mercy on me, for I seek refuge in You, I seek refuge in the shadow of Your wings, until danger passes. Psalm 57:2
David asks for mercy twice. Rashi explains that David was asking for two things: “That he will not kill and would not be killed.” For David, killing Saul would have been just as devastating as being killed by Saul!
But why? Saul was pursuing David and trying to kill him, shouldn’t David want to kill Saul in order to save himself?
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (Ottoman Empire 16th century) explained that David was terrified of killing Saul because that would have constituted a sin and driven him further away from God. Since he did not know that David was in the cave and David’s life was therefore not in immediate danger, perhaps David did not have to right to kill in that situation.
Rabbi Yechiel Spiro from the Chofetz Chaim/Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, however, taught that this request showed the greatness of David. He first prayed not to inflict pain on others and then for his own life to be spared. This, he says, is the hallmark of a Jew. As long as we are not tormenting others we are still acting as the chosen people.
This sentiment was expressed in a story told about Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the spiritual leader of the Sanz-Klausenburg Hassidim. During the Holocaust, Rabbi Halberstam was interned in Auschwitz, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Dachau. Halberstam’s wife and ten of his children were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. While a prisoner in the Mühldorf section of Dachau, a guard began to beat Rabbi Halberstam with a metal truncheon. At one point in the beating, the Nazi taunted the rabbi, asking, “Do you still believe you are the chosen people?”
The rabbi answered, “As long as we are the ones suffering and you are the ones causing the pain, we remain chosen. However, if we were to ever become the ones causing harm to others, I would begin to wonder…”
David’s selfless refusal to harm Saul became a model for Jewish behavior throughout the generations and serves as a powerful lesson in Jewish ethics and morality. The story of David and Saul at Ein Gedi reminds us of the importance of acting with compassion and restraint at all times.