David HaMelech’s Mistake Of Counting Jews And Fiery Insights On The Power Of Desire

One of the most frightening incidences in Tanach is when Hashem tempts David HaMelech to count the Jewish people for no perceivable reason, leading to a disastrous plague.

As the verse states, “The anger of Hashem again flared against Israel and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go count Israel and Yehuda!’”

What caused Hashem’s anger to flare up against Israel? With typical humility, Rashi admits: “I do not know for what reason!”. Imagine that: Rashi could’ve written anything he wished and we’d have accepted because of his greatness, yet even he was forced concede he didn’t know.

On the other hand, the Yalkut Shimoni not only offers a surprising explanation for Hashem’s anger, but also explains how this incident left a permanent stamp on our Tefilah (prayer) until this day.

Jewish golden age under David HaMelech

Not David HaMelech’s time

According to the Yalkut Shimoni, this tragic plague was rooted in an episode that occurred years earlier when David HaMelech finished defeating his enemies and decided that it was high time to build Hashem a Beit Hamikdash of wood and stone.

Does the Torah (Devarim 12:10) not say, “You will cross the Yarden and settle in the land…, and He will give you rest from all your enemies around and dwell securely,” and then state immediately afterwards, “And the place Hashem yourG-d chooses to rest His name there, to there you shall bring all that I command you, your burnt offerings?”

This clearly indicates that once the Jewish people gain peace and security in Eretz Israel, they should build a Beit Hamikdash in Yerushalayim where Hashem chose to rest His name.

Initially, even the prophet Natan thought that this was self-evident. When David HaMelech said to him, “See now, I am sitting in a house of cedars, while the ark of G-dis sitting in a curtain!” Natan responded, “All that is in your heart, go and do, for Hashem is with you.”

Then came the bombshell; Hashem had different plans. That very night, He instructed the prophet Natan to tell the king that the Beit Hamikdash would be built not by him, but by his son, Shlomo. As David HaMelech later told Shlomo (Divrei Hayamim I 22:8) “The word of Hashem came upon me, saying, ‘You have spilt much blood and made great wars. You will not build a house for My name, for much blood have you spilt earthwards before Me.’”

Simply understood, although the king’s conquering of the land was a tremendous mitzvah, nevertheless, just as one may not lift iron on the altar stones, so David HaMelech who spilt the blood of Israel’s enemies was unworthy to build Hashem’s House. The Yalkut Shimoni (Shmuel II ch. 7), however, says the verse means the absolute opposite:

“When David heard this [that he could not build the Beit Hamikdash because he had shed blood], he was afraid and said, ‘I am disqualified from building the Beit Hamikdash!’

“Said R. Yehuda b’ R. Ilai, the Holy One said to him, ‘David, do not fear, By your life, they [those whom you killed] are like sacrifices.’

“He said to him, ‘If so, why can’t I build it?’

“The Holy One said to him, ‘Because if you build it, it will last forever, and never be destroyed.’

“He said to him, ‘If so, that would be good!’

“The Holy One said to him, ‘It is revealed before Me that they will sin and I will vent My rage on it [the Beit Hamikdash] and destroy it, and they will be saved as it is written, ‘He poured His wrath like fire on the tent of the daughter of Tzion.’’

“The Holy One said to him, ‘By your life, because you thought of building it, even though Shlomo your son built it, I will inscribe it in your name [as it says], “Mizmor, a song of the dedication of the House to David.”’”

Although prevented from building Hashem’s house, David HaMelech made huge preparations for its future construction:

Rav Huna says in the Yalkut Shimoni, “He dug 1,500 amah to reach the virgin earth when he built the foundations of the house.” He also made the gates. That is why Yirmiyahu writes in Eicha (ch. 2), “Its gates sunk in the ground.” The enemy could not destroy the Temple gates since everything David built lasted forever (Sota 9a).

David Hamelech also drew up the plans for the future Beit Hamikdash and collected tons of gold and silver, and endless amounts of copper, iron, wood, and stones for the future House (Divrei Hayamim II ch. 29).

Klal Israel must have been devastated. Over three hundred years had passed since the Jews arrived in Eretz Israel, and then, just when the time was ripeHashem announced that the Beit Hamikdash must wait for yet another generation. What could they do about it? A decree is a decree! People turned to their Torah studies and work and the matter drifted from their minds.

According to the Yalkut Shimoni, this is what brought a plague upon them:

“All those many people that fell [in the plague], [died] because they did not demand the building of the Beit Hamikdash. Is this not a kal vachomer (a fortiori argument)?

If such for these people who never saw the Beit Hamikdash, how much more does it apply to us? Therefore the early prophets decreed that Israel should pray three times each day, ‘Please, return Your Shechina to Tziyon.’”

Now this Midrash is incredible for two reasons. First, once Hashem explicitly told David HaMelech that he could not build the Beit Hamikdash for very good reason, what hope did the Jews have of rescinding His decision? Second, did the king’s digging of the Temple foundation, building its gates, and collecting building materials not prove that everything possible was being done for the future Beit Mamikdash?

DALL·E 2024 01 09 13.52.48 A variation of the previous image depicting the ancient Jewish carpenter in his workshop in ancient Jerusalem now specifically sawing a log of wood

The Ramban’s answer

Amazingly, the Ramban (Bamidbar 16:21) not only says the same explanation as the Yalkut Shimoni without ever having seen it, but he also answers our two questions. After citing the verses and Rashi’s admission that he does not know why Hashem punished Israel, the Ramban continues:

“I say, by way of logic, that this was a punishment of Israel for delaying the building of the Beit Habechira, for the ark was going from tent to tent, like a stranger in the land. The tribes did not rise up saying, ‘Let us seek Hashem and build the house for His name,’ as it says, ‘You shall seek His presence and come there’ (Devarim 12:5), until David arose after many days and a long time as it says… Hashem held David back as it says… and the building was delayed further until Shlomo’s rule.”

“Had Israel desired it earlier and arose from the beginning, it would have been done in the days of one of the judges or in the days of Shaul, or even in the days of David. Because if the tribes of Israel arose in the matter, [David] would not have been the builder; rather they would have been the builders.

“But when the people paid no attention, and David paid attention and arose and prepared everything, he was the builder…. Therefore, the building was delayed all the days of David through the sin of Israel. Thus, the wrath came on them. And therefore the place that Hashem chose to place His name there was known (identified) with their punishment and their plague.”

How did “the place that Hashem chose to place His name” become identified with their punishment and plague? Let’s explore the incident further.

Yoav’s attempt to foil the sensus

Blinded by Hashem’s decree, David HaMelech ordered his top general, Yoav ben Tzeruya, to travel throughout the nation, from Dan to Be’er Sheva, and count the people, and when Yoav tried to dissuade him, the king retorted, “Either you are the king and I am the general, or I am king and you are the general!”

Yoav made every attempt to foil David HaMelech’s plans, first going to the obstinate tribe of Gad in the hope that they would resist and refuse to be counted, then omitting the tribe of Levi since Moshe had not counted them among Klal Israel, and omitting Dan as they had been decimated in the episode of the Pilegesh b’Givah.

In addition, he stretched out the count over nine months and twenty days hoping that the king might change his mind. Finally, he returned to David HaMelech and gave him the count: “Israel were 800,000 soldiers who drew the sword, and the people of Yehuda were 500,000 men.” (Shmuel II 24:13)

Only then when it was too late, did the king realize what he had done and confess, “I have sinned greatly with what I did. And now, Hashem, remove your servant’s sin as I have been very foolish” (Ibid v. 10).

When Gad the Navi (prophet) gave David HaMelech a choice of three punishments: “Either seven years of famine in your land, or three months that you flee before your pursuing enemy, or three days of plague in your land,” the king answered with the words of Tachanun, “I am greatly troubled. Let us fall in the hand of Hashem as His mercies are many, and let me fall not in the hand of man.” He preferred the plague where only Hashem would decide who lives or dies, and where wealth and power make no difference.

The plague lasted only a few hours. “Hashem put a plague on Israel from morning until the same time [the next day]. Seventy thousand people died of the nation from Dan to Be’er Sheva.”

Now, Hashem hinted why he had brought this plague upon the people. As the destroying angel reached the threshing field of Arneva the Yevusite in Yerushalayim, Hashem told it to cease its destruction, and Gad then ordered David HaMelech to go to buy the field from Arneva and offer sacrifices to Hashem. Why here? Because as the Ramban said earlier, “the place that Hashem chose to place His name there was [now] known (identified) with their punishment and their plague.”

This field was the site of the future Beit Hamikdash. By buying it and offering sacrifices, David HaMelech atoned for the people’s sin of failing to earnestly seek the building of the Beit Hamikdash.

DALL·E 2024 01 09 12.43.18 An image depicting an ancient Jewish harp player in ancient Jerusalem. The harp player is portrayed in a traditional setting perhaps in a courtyard o
It’s another man playing the harp, not King David.

Why did the field belong to Arneva the Yevusite? Could Hashem not have arranged that the king buy it from a Jew?

The great Mekubal R’ Menachem Azaria (the Ramah MiPano) teaches in his book Gilgulei Neshamot that Arneva was the incarnation of Efron Hachiti who had been stingy when he sold the Machpeila Cave to Avrohom and hinted at a hefty price. Now, Arneva rectified this shortcoming by not only offering David the field for nothing, but also providing him with his cattle and plowing equipment in order to bring offerings on this future site of the Beit Hamikdash.

However, in order to gain full atonement for the people, David HaMelech refused to accept the field for free and paid for it by taking fifty shekels from each tribe. The verses conclude (v. 25): “David built an altar to Hashem there and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. And Hashem heeded the land, and the plague ceased from Israel.”

This shows a little bit on how much the power of desire can accomplish. Had we really wanted the Beit HaMikdash, maybe it would’ve been built earlier. May we all use our desire for the final redemption and Third Beit HaMikdash in our days.

Get "The "Illustrated Book of Kabbalah" for FREE!

Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

You may also like:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Translate »

Get Real Torah in your mailbox

Subscribe to the Newsletter!

Receive powerful authentic Kabbalistic ideas in your mailbox!

We won’t spam your e-mail or sell your information with any party.