Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Vayehi (Haftarah)

“And David’s Time to Die Drew Near”

This week’s haftarah, the shortest in the entire annual cycle, contains the death-bed scene of Kind David (1 Kings 2:1-12). The reason for its choice seems clear enough: the elaborate deathbed scene of Jacob in the Torah portion, containing detailed blessings to each of the sons. A part of the preceding chapter in 1 Kings, in which the elderly king is shown as weak, close to death, and dealing (thanks to force majeur) with matters of the succession to the throne, serves as one of the earlier haftarot of this book, in Hayyei Sarah.

The contents of this death-bed scene are rather disturbing. The scene begins innocuously enough, with some general remarks in which David instructs his son Solomon to walk in the ways of God, to perform his laws and commandments, and to learn from the Torah all that he ought to do. (Incidentally, why is only Solomon present at this scene? Admittedly, he was the heir to throne; moreover, Absalom and Amnon were dead, and Adonijah was in disgrace, under house arrest (?), and basically being kept alive on sufferance. But David had other sons from his various other wives—six of whom are identified by name, and of whom there were a total of eighteen according to Rabbinic tradition; see 2 Sam 3:2-5 & 1 Chr 3:1-9 for their names). So far so good. But at this point, from verse 5 on, he turns to what we feel is the real agenda of this deathbed scene: the settling of old scores. “You know what that son-of-a-bitch Joab son of Zeruiah did. Make bloody sure that he does not die on his bed.” (I translate here rather colloquially). And even more explicitly, Shimei ben Gera, who cursed him outrageously when he was fleeing in disgrace from his own son, Absalom. “Do not hold him unaccountable, for you are a clever man (the implication is that he’ll find a way of getting around the oath extracted from David not to kill Shimei), but bring down his gray hairs with blood to Sheol.” The episode of Absalom’s rebellion must have rankled with David his whole life, precisely because of what could only have been the ambivalence of his feelings: on the one hand, shame, disgrace, anger at having been forced to flee his royal palace, running from place to place like a refugee; on the other hand, because Absalom was his son, he could not hate him single-mindedly as he would a stranger. Remember his cry of pain on being told of his gruesome death: “Absalom, my son; my son, my son, Absalom” (2 Sam 19:1), which puzzled the messengers no end, who were sure they were bearers of good tidings. True, this passage also includes a command to an order to do kindness to the family of Barzilai the Gileadite who showed him kindness at that difficult time. But the overall tone is one of revenge, and making certain that his son would carry out these long-standing accounts of hatred to a successful conclusion.

There has been much discussion in recent years, in American and Western culture generally, about death and dying. It is a truism that death is a time to make peace with ones past, to seek inner peace by accepting ones life, reconciling oneself to ones mistakes and failures, trying to make peace with family and other loved ones with whom one has had marred relationships, etc. This certainly seems to be the overall approach towards death of Judaism, as well, with the addition of the man-God relation to the interpersonal dimension. Jewish religious literature contains a variety of texts for the Viddui, the Confession of Sin, to be recited before death; the overall tone is of a Yom Kippur writ large. Moreover the commandment of lo tikom velo titor (Lev 19:18), not to take vengeance or to bear a grudge, would seem to hold in force even more strongly just before death; in anticipation of the transition to the world of eternity, one might expect a person to look back upon his life with a certain breadth of perspective, a sense of rising above the pettiness of keeping track of old scores.

In light of all this, David’s death-bed scene strikes a very jarring and dissonant note. Once more, we can only return to the simple truth that the Biblical text portrays its protagonists, not as plaster saints, but as men and women of flesh-and-blood, with all their untranscended faults and shortcomings and pettiness: even at the moment of truth and, as some what would have it, near-prophecy that precedes death. There is certainly no reason to hold a brief for Joab or Shimei, but a person who had reached as high a level of love and knowledge of God as David is said to have done might have been expected to find other words to tell his son at his deathbed.

Two possible explanations. First, on the psychological level, one may speculate that the anger he felt towards Absalom, which he was prevented from showing both because of his fatherly love and because of the latter’s particularly nasty death (2 Sam 18:9-15), were vented upon his erstwhile crony and supporter, the opportunistic sycophant Joab and Shimei. Second: it may be that he was concerned about the stability of Solomon’s future reign, and felt that to leave these men alive, free and unpunished, and possibly poisoning the public atmosphere with anti-Davidic messages, would have been too dangerous (But the text doesn’t say that this was his reasoning).


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