Haftarah Parashat Vayehi
December 22, 2018 | 14 Tevet 5779
1 Kings 2:1-12
David’s message to his son Shlomo, the future king, is filled with contradictions. On the one hand, he charges Shlomo to live and rule nobly: “I am going on the way of all the earth. And you must be strong, and be a man. And keep what the Lord your God enjoins, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commands, and His dictates and His admonitions, as it is written in the Teachings of Moshe, so that you may prosper in everything you do and in everything in which you turn.” (verses 2-3 – R. Alter translation) But what follows is a charge to violently settle past scores: “And what’s more (v’gam), you yourself know what Yoav son of Zeruah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Yisrael…he killed them and shed the blood of war in peace… and you must act in wisdom and do not let his grey head go down in peace to Sheol…” (See verses 5-10) How does one make sense of this? Does the first part represent the righteous heights to which we aspire, and the second part the vengeful depths to which we often fall? Or is David saying: be righteous, but only within the limits of realpolitik?
To answer this question, a number of commentators have focused on the seemingly insignificant word “v’gam“, translated above as “and what’s more”. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) understood these words to mean that David thought that punishing Yoav for his treason had divine imprimatur: “these also are the ways of God, to do away with wicked people.” Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel, the 14th century Spanish statesman and sage, however, vehemently disagreed. He asserted that David was merely warning Shlomo to be wary of Yoav and people like him. According to Abrabanel, David thought that it might become necessary for Shlomo to execute Yoav and other traitors, but he was not charging him explicitly to do so.
A more “modern” commentator, Rabbi Leibush Malbim (19thcentury Lithuania) offers a very different interpretation based on translating “v’gam” as “but also”. He builds a whole theory of governance based on David’s two contrasting commands: “After ‘David’ commanded him not to turn from the law of Moses, and not to depend on his own wisdom and discernment, he said that in any case there will be decisions where he is given the authority to act according to his wisdom and not according to the laws of the Torah, and these are called the ‘laws of the king’ that are different from Torah law. [For instance], the king can kill someone without warning and can kill many in one day when the times require it [in contradiction to the laws of the Torah] …” This political theory, founded upon earlier thinkers like Rabbeinu Nissim, suggested that the leader is sometimes required to step outside the normal rules of society (the Torah) in order to maintain the public good.
This idea that there are times when the good, the lawful, and the necessary do not line up is also reflected in the rabbinic principle of “Hora’at Shaah” – the temporary suspension of Torah law when necessary to save the Jewish polity, which is based on Tehillim 119:126: “Et la’asot la’SHem – It is time for the LORD to work; they have made void Thy law.” The contemporary expression is a president or prime minister’s ability to declare an emergency and assume “Emergency Powers” that do not require the approval of other branches of government.
It may be desirable to have an executive authority that can act swiftly and decisively to do what must be done, but the potential for abuse is terrifying. History is filled with examples of temporary states of emergency that became permanent police states. This is ultimately the challenge of power, and it only goes to stress the importance of choosing leaders with wisdom and character.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives. Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp. Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus . Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: