Jesse, or Ishai, was the father of David. As such, he was an important
personality but we do not know much about him. The Biblical record is
scant and tells us very little about this direct ancestor of the Messianic
King. The Sages attempted to fill this gap with a variety of traditions
and their concept of Redemption played an important role in how these
traditions were conveyed. First, they viewed him as a great man, certainly
not the clueless patriarch portrayed by the superficial reading of Samuel
Ishai is one of the “eight princes of man” in Micha 5:4 according to
Sukkah 52b. He went out at the head of a multitude of followers and
returned with a multitude and he taught Torah to a multitude (Brochos
58a). Ishai inspired David to fight Goliath (Tanchuma Buber Vayigash 8).
Four died solely because of the serpent’s advice to Eve, for they never
sinned. Ishai was one of them (Shabbos 55b). “The Sages said: Ishai lived
more than 400 years (Genesis Rabbah 96:4)."
We will focus upon a long midrashic passage that characterizes both Ishai
and David. More importantly, it throws a strong light upon the approach of
the Sages towards the recurring patterns in Tanach, the return of
generations and the nature of repentance and redemption in history.
There is an opinion that Ishai separated from his wife after he came to
learn that there were some who questioned the legal propriety of the
marriage of Boaz to Ruth. As a descendent of Moabites, he was, perhaps,
prohibited from living with a full-fledged Jewess. He then separated from
his wife. He told his non-fully Jewish maid to prepare herself so he can
cohabit with her and in this fashion fulfill the commandment of
procreation (the Midrash invokes a conditional freeing arrangement that
renders her permitted for those with a tainted lineage). In the meantime,
Ishai’s wife was distressed for she desired more children from her sainted
husband. The maidservant suggested that they do as Rachel and Leah – that
they change place under the cover of darkness so that Ishai cohabit with
his wife instead of the maidservant. The plan worked and the wife
conceived and bore a child. This was David. When Jesse and his sons saw
this, they suspected her of adultery but they held their peace for 28
years, until Samuel came to Ishai’s house to anoint the new king (Yalkut
Hamechiri, Psalms 118:28, retold in Sefer Hatodya, p322-323).
What might at first glance be seen as no more than a fanciful tale is in
fact a necessary denouement to the progression of the process of
purification and repentance throughout generation. As you surely recall,
the motif of a well intentioned woman deceiving a man for a laudable goal
is a recurrent pattern that we have encountered many times. First there
was Lot and his daughters, then Judah and Tamar, then Ruth and Boaz. At
each succeeding instance, the sin became finer and less apparent, the evil
of it becoming more subordinate and, we might say, more diluted by the
good intention. What Lot’s daughters did is abhorrent and off-putting. The
transgression of Judah and Tamar was technically much less prominent for
both he and she were single; yet, clearly some sin was committed. Ruth and
Boaz triumphed over their inclinations; however, it is hard to deny that
their encounter in a secluded place and in the middle of the night was
nevertheless improper. A scent of impropriety hung over the ancestry of
David. To complete the great cosmic drama of redemption, the situation
must have been replayed again, even if the Bible does not say so
explicitly, this time with no sin whatsoever.
The Sages understood that this must have taken place before the curtain descends upon this episode
in the life of the royal family. A wholly righteous man and an entirely
deserving woman must once again come together to replay the scene totally
within the confines of holy matrimony. No law was broken when Ishai
approached his wife, no technical prohibition and no moral consideration.
Both he and she acted out of most laudable motives and their union was
blessed with David. A cycle has ended, another cycle was ready to begin.
What is human history but a spiral that continually passes over the same
ground, over the same issues but each time at a higher level. David
certainly continued the personal and national work of redemption
throughout his life and career and in the life of his descendents. Yet, a
chapter has closed and a new chapter opened. The ground that was gained
will never be forfeited and the failures and ascents will henceforth play
out on a more elevated platform.