Kingdom Building vs Building the Kingdom

Bereisheet 5770 – Kingdom Building vs. Building the Kingdom


by Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD

This Haftarah is a special one for any Shabbat that falls the day before Rosh Chodesh, as does October 17, this year. This Haftarah (Shmuel Aleph/1 Samuel 20:18-42) provides an opportunity to see the contrast between Saul and Jonathan in how they related to David. With one king and two heirs apparent in the chapter, it is no surprise that the text is all about kingdom building.

Saul is obsessed with building and protecting his kingdom. The text portrays Saul as a study in jealousy and self-involvement. He is a personal kingdom builder. Jonathan is the Crown Prince–the heir apparent. In contrast to his father, he is willing to risk his personal kingdom because of his covenant of friendship with David. And it is David, not Jonathan, who will be the next king of Israel.

Jonathan admires David from the time he first sees him in the encounter with Goliath. The text earlier tells us that this was when “His soul was knit to the soul of David” (1 Samuel 18:1). The women of Israel, ecstatic over David’ military prowess, sing his praises: “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). This further infects Saul’s already diseased soul. Jealous, narcissistic, paranoid and determined, he dispatches David on various military fools’ errands, trying to get him killed by the Philistines. But Jonathan’s admiration for David only grows.

Like all good people, inclined to believe the best about others, Jonathan thinks that his father’s animosity toward David is a passing storm, already blown over. But in this Haftarah, Jonathan realizes things are far worse than he imagined. If David doesn’t go into hiding immediately, Saul will have him killed. Jonathan and David come to terms with reality and recognize they must part for David’s sake. First, they renew their covenant of friendship, saying, “Go in peace! For we two have sworn to each other in the name of the Lord: ‘May the Lord be [witness] between you and me, and between your offspring and mine, forever'” (1 Samuel 20:42).

This is a finely crafted tale of covenant making and covenant keeping, of unselfish caring for the well-being of another. This is made all the more striking when we see Jonathan’s unselfishness against the dark background of Saul’s competitive and paranoid personal kingdom building.

What kinds of covenants do we have with those around us? And what might it mean for us to be more like Jonathan, looking out for others, even against self-interest, rather than being like Saul, who looked out only for himself? Three terms from our tradition can help us answer these questions: Ahavat Yisrael, Ahavat Habriot and Ahavat Chesed.

I recently read a wise assessment by a Jewish religious professional who said that the greatest need of our time is for all Jews to cultivate a sense of Ahavat Yisrael (love of all one’s fellow Jews), and to recognize that any Ahavat Yisrael that does lead to Ahavat HaBriot (love of humanity as a whole) is counterfeit.

In a sense this is a communal application of Hillel’s dictum-“If I am not for myself who will be for me?” but put in the collective-“If we Jews, or we Messianic Jews, are not for ourselves, who will be for us?” We need to look out for the people with whom we are affiliated, our own people.

If Ahavat Yisrael that does not lead to Ahavat HaBriot is bogus, however, we need to heed the second phrase of Hillel’s dictum-“If we are for ourselves alone, who are we?” If looking out for our own concerns is our only real horizon of interest, if we like Saul are jealous and obsessive personal kingdom builders, threatened by the success of others, then what are we? Not much! We must go beyond this to become a community of individuals of a wider horizon, people for whom the lives, the needs, and the reality of others are not peripheral concerns, but are instead the center of the arena where our love for God is demonstrated, validated, and perfected.

Although Torah says, and Messiah confirms, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, the underlying ethic of the general culture is too often “Look out for number one,” or, “Mind your own business–don’t get involved,” or even, “Get them before they get you.” This predatory worldview echoes the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, who wrote, “Each man is the other man’s wolf.” Builders of personal kingdoms move through the world focused on getting what they can out of others, on not being taken advantage of, hoarding time, advantage, and resources-looking out for number one. These are people on the take rather than people on the give.

People who serve the King of Kings and who build his Kingdom, have a wider vision-they recognize and honor their covenant relationships and obligations with their various circles of association, not only with family, friends, and spiritual kinship groups, but also with all living things, with the creation itself and with humanity as a whole. In our tradition, this is called “Ahavat Habriot”-the love of living things, expressed in Ahavat Chesed, covenantal caring for its own sake. Those who practice Ahavat Chesed and Ahavat Habriot relish and seek out opportunities to be honorable and unexpectedly kind, alert to every opportunity to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God.

Some time ago, I was teaching a workshop at a local church when a Christian woman raised a question born of her insecurity about sharing her faith with brilliant and well-educated Jewish co-workers.”How can I share my faith with my co-workers when they are so smart and well-e ducated?” I told her that sharing one’s faith is not a matter of matching IQ’s point for point, nor educations degree for degree. What really penetrates and sinks into the marrow of people’s bones is the quality of our relationships-the degree to which we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. When we live this way, the weight of our lives establishes the truth of our faith in ways that bypass all defenses and differences of status.

Poet Adrienne Rich wrote this in 1991:

In those years, people will say, we lost track of the meaning of we, of you

We found ourselves reduced to I

And the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible:

We were trying to live a personal life

And yes, that was the only life we could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged

into our personal weather

They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove

Along the shore, through the rage of fog

Where we stood saying ‘I’


Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

(“In Those Years.” Found online at

And may that be true of all of us as we live out Ahavat Yisrael-the love of our own people, Ahavat Habriot-the love or all people and of all living things, and Ahavat Chesed-covenantal caring, seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God just for the holy beauty of it all and the joy of pleasing Him.

So, shall we put down Saul’s pathetic scepter of personal kingdom building, and take up Jonathan’s princely crown of service to the King of Kings, the Son of David.

“If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us? And if we are for ourselves alone, what are we? And if not now, when ?” (Pirkei Avot, 1:14).


Stephanie Escalnate