Haftarah Parshat Haye Sarah
(I Kings 1:1-31)
November 2, 2002
The Haftarah opens with King David being overtaken by old age: “King David was now old, advanced in years, and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm.” (1 Kings 1:1) Commentators were struck by the curious wording of this verse which states both that “King David was old” and also “advanced in years.” This redundancy led interpreters to question why David seemed to age prematurely for someone who was only seventy years old.
Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and commentator, offers several explanations for David’s condition. His first is taken from a Christian commentator who explains that David’s condition was caused by war injuries in which he lost a great deal of blood. As a consequence he was unable to keep warm. Abrabanel rejects this interpretation since there is no indication in the stories about David that he was ever seriously injured. Rather, he prefers to attribute David’s plight to his sensitivity to the agonies of war which continued to bother him long after his feats on the battle field. This, coupled with his troubled memories of his failed relations with his children and his constant concern over his other sins, caused him to lose his bodily strength. Abrabanel, who also served as a physician, offers us extraordinary insight into David’s psyche and an astute awareness of human psychology.
Earlier sages offer more curious explanations of David’s weakened state. In the Talmud (Brachot 62b), Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Hanina links the fact that David’s bedclothes failed to provide him warmth with a previous episode in David’s life where he cut a corner off of a garment worn by King Saul. (see 1 Samuel 24:4) He deduces from this association the lesson: “Any one who treats clothing contemptuously will in the end derive no benefit from them.” This lesson, based on the rabbinic principle of “midah kneged midah – measure for measure” assumes a cause and effect relation between a person’s behavior and the consequences of his or her actions. Rabbi Yossi sees poetic justice in David’s failed condition.
Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani, another Talmudic sage, relates David’s weakness to another event in his life where David was forced to choose a punishment for his sins which would effect all of the people of Israel. The very thought of his people’s affliction haunted him and caused his blood to run cold: “When David saw the angel [which would bring a plague on the people of Israel] his blood ran cold with fear of the angel. (see 2 Samuel 24:10-17) As it is written: ‘They covered him with bedclothes, for he never felt warm’” (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 18:30)
The common thread which links these interpretations is that David’s condition was a consequence of actions taken in his life. Obviously, we cannot measure the results of our actions with any degree of precision but it is worthy to note that our tradition saw to it that even our most heroic figures had to own up to the responsibilities for their actions. This is one of the Jewish traditions greatest religious lessons and one of life’s realities from which there is no escape.
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.
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