Haftarah Parshat Haye Sarah
(1 Kings 1:1-31)
November 19, 2011
22 Heshvan 5772
David’s later years were tragic. Old age struck him early and hard and left him with little strength. He and his reign as king were incredibly vulnerable. The opening words of the book of Kings capture the essence of David’s tragic state: “King David was old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm.” (1:1) Tradition has it that this state came upon him when he was only seventy years old. Rabbi Yitchak Abrabanel (Spain 15th century), who was known for his discerning questions, pondered why it was that David should age so prematurely when compared to other great biblical figures.
One midrash, quoted by Abrabanel to answer this question, based its explanation of David’s condition on the last episode found in the book of Samuel (2 Samuel 24). This story immediately precedes the story in our haftarah reading. There we find a rather complicated story in which God confronted David for taking a census of the people. He offered David three alternative punishments for this sin: war, famine or plague. David chose plague and as a result, the people were decimated as punishment as punishment for David’s sin. The midrash which examines the significance of this episode opens: “Yesterday [when he was young] they dressed him (David) [for battle] and he said: ‘I cannot go out in those [clothes]’ (See 1 Samuel 17:39) [From this we learn] that he was so full of vigor and bodily warmth that he did not need the additional clothes but now [in his present condition] they had to cover him because he could not remain warm. [Why?] David’s body had become cold from fear of the angel [of death], for when God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it was on account of David’s sin.” (Adapted from Agadat Bereishit 38:3 Buber ed. p. 77)
What turned David old before his time? According to this midrash, it was the woeful thought that he bore responsibility for the tragic fate of his people, that their trials and tribulations were his doing. This was for him overbearing and it turned him prematurely old. The ‘truth’ of this midrash is that leaders bear responsibility for their charges. This is a mantle that they should not wear lightly. This should be a litmus test for those to whom we charge with leading us.