Parshat Haye Sarah
(1 Kings 1:1-1:31)
November 6, 2004
The opening episode of this week’s haftarah offers a rare opportunity to view the tragic aging process of King David, the mythic leader of the Jewish people. David was not old chronologically by our standards, but the conditions brought on by age made him well aware of his mortality: “Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes for he could not become warm.” (1 Kings 1:1)
The sages who composed the following midrash used David’s old age as an opportunity to examine some issues associated with the challenges of old age and death: ‘Now David was old and stricken in years’ [This verse can be compared with a verse from Ecclesiastes:] ‘There is no man who has power over the breath of life [literally: the wind]’ (8:8) – No one is capable, when death approaches, to close his or her mouth so that the breath of life won’t escape, since no one knows from which orifice the breathe of life escapes. When the end comes, the breath of life simply rises up and leaves him or her, as it written: ‘There is no man who has power over the breath of life…and the dust returns to the earth.’ (8:8; 12:7) Rabbi Shimon demurs: Don’t say that! Rather quote the end of the verse instead: ‘and the spirit returns to God who made it.’ (12:7) If the soul retains its original purity and holiness, then it will return to God who has made it. Abigail [one of David’s wives] assured him: ‘the life of my master shall be bound up in the bond of life’ Why? Since David was a Tzadik (righteous). (1 Samuel 25:29)’ (Agadat Bereshit 35:1)
This midrash expresses, in a colorful way, the human desire to stall death. Obviously, this attempt is ultimately impossible. The first opinion, found in this midrash, is fatalistic. Not only can’t a person avert death but death is absolute and final. Rabbi Shimon is more optimistic and Jewishly normative. He asserts that, in death, a person who maintains his or her purity of spirit will ultimately be restored to his or her Maker.
The midrash continues: ‘Nor does a person have control over the day of his death.’ (Ecclesiastes 8:8) Even an important person, a king or a government minister, when he dies, his glory does not remain with him. David, while he is alive, was known as king… but when he died, he was no longer called king: ‘So David slept with his ancestors.’ (1 Kings 2:10)…
This passage seems terribly pessimistic. However, when considered with the previous passage, it packs a powerful message. We have little control over death, but our possibilities in life are endless if we take control of ourselves and build lives dedicated to God. This legacy will serve us both in life and beyond.
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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