By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
I have been blessed with four amazing children and, as they grow, one story keeps recurring. When they are five years old the setting is the playground, and playmates that are their best friends one moment turn on them the next. For the older children, it is often a bitter episode of teen romance gone bad. But the painful truth is that the bitterest poison is a betrayal by a loved one. As Rabbi Moshe Alshich (16th-century Ottoman) taught, the pinprick inflicted by a friend is much more painful than a sword wound inflicted by an enemy.
King David suffered tremendously from betrayal, and taught us how to deal with it in Psalm 55.
Like the best of us, King David suffered betrayal and cried out to God about it:
He harmed his ally, he broke his pact; his talk was smoother than butter, yet his mind was on war; his words were more soothing than oil, yet they were drawn swords. Psalm 55:21-22
The sages teach us that this refers to Ahitophel, a counselor and friend David who betrayed the king when his son Absalom revolted. But the betrayal cut even deeper. When Absalom sought the advice of Ahitophel, David’s confidante advised Absalom to have relations with his father’s concubines in order to show all of Israel that he was unafraid of his father [2 Samuel 16:20].
According to the sages, this betrayal was a result of a flaw in Ahitophel’s character. While all of the sources acknowledge his intellect, Midrash Rabbah described Ahitophel as “a man, like Balaam, whose great wisdom was not received in humility as a gift from heaven, and so became a stumbling block to him”. The sages teach that the one thing lacking in him was sincere piety and humility, and this proved his undoing in the end. Despite his wisdom, he took part in Absalom’s rebellion against David. The sages note that for this he was defeated and punished in this world, and forfeited his share in the world to come.
Just as he does in so many other Psalms, David acknowledges that the one solution to dealing with this betrayal is to turn to God.
Cast your burden on Hashem and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous man collapse. For You, O Hashem, will bring them down to the nethermost Pit— those murderous, treacherous men; they shall not live out half their days; but I trust in You. Psalms 55:23-24
David emphasizes that his faith was in God and not in his fellow man. He also expresses faith in God as a true judge who will punish those who betray us. But not only does he turn to God and put his trust in God, David “casts his burden upon God.” While in this psalm David is reacting to the betrayal of his friend and advisor, David teaches us that when anything goes wrong and we suffer, we must turn to God and He will carry our burdens.
Rabbi Jacob Kranz (1741–1804), a Lithuanian born rabbi famous for his fables and parables designed to teach and illustrate instructive lessons based on Jewish tradition, told the following parable to illustrate this idea:
A pauper once trudged along a rural path, bearing a bundle of his meager possessions on his back. As the beggar grew weary, he noticed a small speck in the distance. To his pleasant surprise, a lavish carriage belonging to a local squire soon overtook him.
The kind-hearted nobleman urged the beggar to climb aboard and rest his feet for the journey to town. The pauper obliged, excited to take the load off of his feet. A few moments later, the nobleman turned around and saw the beggar still carrying his bundle on his drooping shoulders.
Concerned, the nobleman asked the beggar why he did not set down his burden and take some rest. The beggar humbly replied that he did not want to trouble the nobleman’s horses with also carrying his meager belongings.
The nobleman explained to the beggar that even if he continued to carry his bundle on his shoulders, it was still being carried by the horses. The beggar had needlessly suffered, thinking he was doing the right thing.
Similarly, we often carry our burdens and worries on our own shoulders. However, if we recognize that God is carrying the entire world, including our worries and concerns, we can relax and put our faith in Him.
These are hard lessons that I have seen prove true in my own life. Betraying a friend may be expedient in the short term, but it bears bitter fruit. And being on the receiving end generally feels intolerable. But if we remember that we are not alone and we do not need to carry our burdens by ourselves, it becomes much more tolerable.
“Cast your burden on Hashem and He will sustain you.”
Teaching this to my kids is still difficult. For now, the best I can do is model faith in God and recite this Psalm with my children.