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Haftarah Parshat Hayei Sarah

Haftarah Parshat Hayei Sarah (1 Kings 1:1-31)
February 11, 2017 / 22 Heshvan 5778

Those familiar with King David’s life know that his later years were quite difficult. He was physically depleted and had lost his edge as a leader.

Our Haftarah, the first chapter of the Book of Kings, makes this plain from the very first line: “King David was now old (zaken), advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes he never felt warm.” According to the simple meaning of the text, David wore his old age heavily. His being “old” indicates only a decrease in vitality, without a concomitant increase in dignity and status.

The midrash, however, paints a different picture. Avraham was the first person in the Tanakh to be described as old (zaken): “Avraham was now old, advance in years, and the Lord had blessed Avraham in all things.” (Genesis 24:1) And while Avraham understood that his end was approaching and that he needed to prepare, the storyline there is anything but pejorative. Perhaps drawing from this more positive picture, the midrash sees the appellation “elder” or “zaken” as a badge of honor granted to heroes for their noble acts:

Come and see! From Adam all the way through to Avraham were twenty generations and nowhere is old age (zikna) mentioned until the time of Avraham. Children were born, as were grandchildren and there was no recognizable difference between children and their parents…until Avraham came along and God gave him this glorious adornment, for it is a glory for a person to become elderly (mazkin). And for what did this honor come to Avraham? For doing acts of tzedakah (righteousness), as it says: ‘Gray hair is a crown of glory’ (Proverbs 16:31); And how does one attain it? ‘It is attained by the way of righteousness (tzedakah)’ (Ibid). Who was the first to find it? Avraham, as it is written about him: ‘For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.’ (Genesis 18:19) God said to him [on account of this], surely you are worthy of being an ‘elder’. That is why it says: ‘Avraham was now an elder (old)’. David also acquired this honor, as it is written: ‘King David was now an ‘elder’ (old). Why [did he merit this]? Because he acted in the ways of Avraham, as it is written: ‘David reigned over all Israel, and David executed justice and righteousness (tzedakah) among all his people.’ (2 Samuel 8:15)” (adapted from Tanhuma Buber Hayyei Sarah 4, p. 118)

Perhaps the midrash’s clear deviation from the plain sense of the text in our Haftarah should serve as a reminder for US that we are the arbiters of our fate and have the ability to shape who we are and how we will be viewed. The sages want us to know that how others see our old age will be determined by how we lead our lives. Leading a noble life will make old age a badge of honor to be worn with pride.

About This Commentary

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:
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