by Rabbi Ron Stern
The Jewish people had kings (and one queen) ruling over them for nearly 1,000 years. How many can you name? Maybe you’d have David on your list, perhaps Solomon. If you’re really a maven, you might mention Saul. But unless you’ve studied bible (perhaps in my class!) you’d have a hard time naming another of the nearly 50 kings that ruled over Israel and Judah. (For a list and some background, look here.) It’s likely that all those kings actually lived and ruled; some are even attested to in the chronologies of other nations, not to mention the rather lengthy accounts in the Bible. Some achieved glorious victories, accumulated wealth, built palaces, acquired many wives – a real Jewish Game of Thrones! — and yet we hardly hear about their exploits.
Instead the story we tell, the one with which we are most familiar, is the story of nomadic wandering and slavery. Though much of Moses’ exploits and the Hebrew story before his times lies beyond the archeological record and only appears in the Torah in a condensed form; the forty years of wandering is captured in the rather short book of Numbers. And yet, Jewish celebrating both on Shabbat and throughout the years focuses on the story of slavery and redemption. We are told that Shabbat rest is the Divine gift after Egyptian slavery, that the holidays are to remember the liberation and wandering. There is not one holiday for the kings or remembrance of Israelite monarchies!
How do we explain that glaring omission from Jewish historical memory and celebration?
One answer gets to the core of what it means to be a Jew. The story of desert wandering is a story of aspiration. It is the story of a people becoming. All potential lies ahead. The Israelites in the desert have not yet realized their national aspirations – they are wanderers. They are only just beginning to implement the legal system outlined in Torah. They have yet to choose a king or be ruled by one. Their leader, as our ancestors tell it, wants nothing from them but the pursuit of virtue.
In contrast, the stories of the kings are accounts of hopes unrealized. No king rises to the level of Moses, no subsequent Jewish nation fully and successfully implements the morality asserted in Torah. So, their stories have no place in holiday celebrations or the liturgy of the Jewish people. Jewish prayer and Jewish celebration are about aspiration: what we can yet become – a realization of what we are not.
The lesson of this surprising anomaly of Jewish identity for us today is that we must always be in a state of becoming; not stuck in the cynicism of what is nor the back-patting of some distorted vision of what was. Individuals, communities, nations are better served when they reach beyond where they are to what they can be. That vision is elusive, and we can certainly disagree on what might be, however, as Jews our own experience compels us to look to the future even as we learn from the past.