(I Kings 2:1-12)
January 14, 2006
Everyday life sometimes lulls us into forgetting certain truths about human existence. We are sometimes left with the impression that there are some people who live above the natural order. This week\’s Torah reading and its accompanying haftarah serve as reminders that life, even for the giants among us, is ultimately finite. Patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets and kings die just like everyone else. The position and power so identified with them is ultimately no less temporal than their flesh.
This week\’s haftarah deals with King David\’s final days: \”When David\’s life was drawing to a close, he instructed his son Solomon as follows: I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man…\” (1 Kings 2:1-2) In this scene, David is preparing his son to take over as king. David is quite aware that his temporal power is coming to an end and he assiduously prepares his chosen son to succeed him.
This final episode in David\’s life is poised on dealing with the real politic issues of succession and the maintenance of power, but the following midrash picks up on a cue in the language of this verse to address instead the question of the nature of the life and death of powerful people: \”\’No man has authority over the breath of life – to capture the breath of life; there is no authority over the day of death.\’ (Ecclesiastes 8:8)… [Before David was close to death], Scripture refers to him this way: \’King David was now old, advanced in years…\’ (1 Kings 1:1) Now that he was close to death, what is written about him? It does not say: \’When King David\’s life was drawing to a close\’; rather it says: \’When David\’s life was drawing to a close.\’ (1 Kings 2:1)\” (adapted from Genesis Rabbah 96:3 Theodore Albeck ed. p. 1194)
A later source, Otiot d\’Rabbi Akiva (Eretz Yisrael ~ 7-9 century), which drew upon this midrash, concluded: \”Power and kingship do not matter at the time of death when a king is no different than a poor man.\” (Version A, Letter Tav) Why do the sages seem so bent on stating the obvious? It is probably because there is an all too human tendency to expect the superhuman from exceptional people. The sages, therefore, felt compelled to remind us that even great people are only flesh and blood; here today and gone tomorrow. No more and no less. Still, those of us who remain must go on.
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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