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Va-Yehi 5764

Vayehi
(1 Kings 2:1-12)
January 10, 2004

The connection between haftarot and the parshiot (the Torah reading) is sometimes thematic and sometimes linguistic. This week’s haftarah reflects both. The heroes of both, Jacob and David, are close to death. Both bless their offspring and both admonish them. Even the opening language of both is the same: “When the life of Jacob was coming to a close” (Genesis 47:29) – “When the life of David was coming to a close.” (1 Kings 2:1). What distinguishes these two stories, however, is King David’s command to his son, Solomon. First, he urges him, not atypically, to follow in the ways of God. But after this admonition, he demands of Solomon to settle a vendetta with a few of his outstanding enemies, in particular, Joab ben Zeruiah: “Further, you know what Joab ben Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s forces, Abner ben Ner and Amasa ben Jether: he killed them, shedding blood in peacetime, staining the girdle of his loins and the sandals of his feet with blood of war. So act in accordance with your wisdom, and see that his white hair does not go down to Sheol in peace.” (1 Kings 2:5-6)

On the one hand, David’s council seems judicious since this advice might work to shore up Solomon’s fledgling monarchy. There was good reason to be suspicious of Joab for he had come to support Adoniyah, the eldest remaining son of David, who had tried to wrest the kingdom from father’s hands in his final days. Nevertheless, David’s treatment of Joab is disturbing. Joab was, after all, David’s chief of staff and when he harmed Abner and Joab, he did it at David’s bidding, since both of them were at one time David’s enemies. Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag), the 13th century French interpreter and philosopher, found a different reason for David’s ire. He noticed a curious redundancy in the above verse. He points out that the verse mentions Joab’s transgressions against David two different ways: 1. “you know what Joab ben Zeruiah did to me”; 2. What he did to the two commanders…” Normally we consider both to be talking about the same wrongs. Ralbag, however, considers them to be two distinct sins and identifies the first of these sins to be that Joab was responsible for killing David’s son, Abshalom, who had rebelled against David.

Why should this be considered a sin against David? Here, too, Joab was clearly protecting David’s interests. Ralbag explains that David wanted him captured and not killed. Rabbi Meir Simchah from Dvinsk, the 19th-20th century Lithuanian sage, expanded Ralbag’s explanation. He asserts that David had deeper psychological reasons for his anger at Abshalom’s death. He saw in Abshalom’s rebellion against him just compensation for his own sins with Bathsheba and his inadequate management of his own household. Deep down, he felt that Joab had “robbed him” of his due punishment and consequent atonement when he killed his rebellious son. (see Meshech Hochmah Parshat Vayechi end – Cooperman ed. p. 225)

This interpretation, which examines the deepest, darkest recesses of David’s heart, sees him as a very complicated character. It uncovers in David an almost obsessive belief that all of a person’s actions have consequences which must be acted out in life. For David, whose life was forged in the crucible of leadership, this legacy proved too much to bear.

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.
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