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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Parashat Chayei Sarah - the Haftara

Parashat Chayei Sarah – the Haftara
1 Kings 1:1 – 31
Reading date: 22nd November 2008 – 24th Cheshvan 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
And the King took an oath, saying:"As YHVH lives, who has rescued me from every trouble: The oath I swore to you by YHVH the God of Israel, that your son Solomon should succeed me as king and that he should sit upon my throne in my stead, I will fulfill this very day!"I Kings 1:29-30

“Inner Beauty”
This week the Haftara is taken from the book of I Kings. King David is old and will soon die. The charismatic Adonijah, the heir apparent, declares himself king, but Nathan the prophet and Bat-Sheva, David's favorite wife, persuade the ailing king to name the younger son, Solomon as king. The phrase, ‘zaken, ba bayamim’ echoes the description of Abraham (Gen. 24:1). The Torah portion similarly includes the announcement of the death of Sarah (which provides the name for the Parasha- literally the 'Life of Sarah'), and the death of Abraham. The swearing of David (I Kings 1:29) also parallels the swearing of Abraham's servant (Gen. 24:2).

This week's Haftara is taken from the book of I Kings (from the section called the 'Early Prophets' or Historical prophets as opposed to the later 'literary' prophets like Isaiah and Amos). The book of Kings was divided in two by the early Greek translation (the Septuagint). The book of I Kings deals with the monarchy of David and his son Solomon.

Abraham and David are pivotal characters in the Bible: Abraham is a model of righteousness and David is considered the greatest king of Israel and the archetype for the Messiah. In this parasha, both are old and prepare for death. Abraham performs the final act of pure ‘hesed’, securing a burial plot for his wife Sarah, and arranges for an appropriate wife for his son Isaac. In contrast, we see a feeble monarch, easily manipulated and unable to manage his affairs. Although Nathan instructs Bat Sheva to 'remind' the king of his oath to choose Solomon, there is in fact no record in the text of such a promise. The reader cannot know if this was a ruse, or in fact a crucial promise that was made privately? Their choice of Solomon seems reminiscent of Rebecca’s manipulation of Isaac to bless Jacob instead of Esau. One can well sympathize with Adonijah and his supporters, since the Torah explicitly states that the eldest son cannot be deprived of his inheritance, and passed over for a younger son of a preferred wife (Deut. 21:16) although we see this rule violated in almost every family story with a loved wife and an unloved wife.

King David's reign is held up as the model for the future, and traditional prayers include the restoration of ‘Malchut Beit David’, the reign of the House of David. Although David was a great leader and reigned for a golden period in Israel's history, in his old age, he is incapacitated. Even a beautiful young woman who lies in bed with him is unable to "warm him up" (meant either literally- in terms of body heat, as earlier he was covered in bed clothes and was unable to keep warm, or meant sexually). After he is convinced that Solomon should succeed him and be king (which ensures the safety of his beloved Bat Sheva who surely would have been killed together with Nathan and Solomon had Adonijah ascended to the throne), in the chapter after our Haftara reading, King David gives Solomon his advice for survival. Along with the spiritual message to observe the Torah (so YHVH will keep YHVH's promise), he is advised to kill off or neutralize his political opponents. Solomon has Joab, the soldier who supported his brother killed, and dismisses High Priest Aviatar and banishes him. Adonijah promises to be loyal to Solomon, and initially Solomon relents but later reconsiders and has him executed.

In contrast, when Abraham passes on his legacy to Isaac, we do not hear any speeches. The parasha begins with the lengthy negotiations with Ephron over the burial plot. Then the Torah records in great detail (67 verses in chapter 24) how Isaac's wife Rebecca was chosen by Abraham's servant. And in the final chapter, Abraham is careful to arrange his affairs. Abraham remarries (the little known Keturah) and has six more sons. Although everything that is owned by Abraham is willed to Isaac, and Isaac clearly inherits the mantle of his father, there is little rancor. Abraham diplomatically sends away the sons of his concubines to the land of the east with gifts. In other words, he does what he can to ensure Isaac will live in peace and harmony. When he dies "at a ripe old age, old and contented" even Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury him at the cave of Machpelah. What can we learn from Abraham's actions? He does what he can to defuse conflict among his children. He takes care of the dead, and arranges for the future.

The contrast of Abraham and David's legacy in the two stories of the Torah and Haftara is striking. How different were their deaths. While David dies with unfinished business, one gets a sense that Abraham has done everything he had to do, and planned for the future. What advice would they give us? There is a beautiful tradition to write an 'ethical will.' This usually takes the form of a letter addressed to one's family and friends that includes one's important personal beliefs and values, and contains blessings for the future. Ethical wills that have been preserved are wonderful snapshots of lives from long ago. A famous example of such an ethical will was written by Judah ibn Tibbon in the twelfth century.

One doesn't have to be dying to write such a document. It is a clarifying exercise to articulate what is important in life, what lessons have been learned (thus far) and what advice we would want to pass on to others, instead of worrying about who gets the china or the jewelry. Abraham and David left legacies. What will be our legacy for the future?

Shabbat Shalom

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