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Va-Yehi 5769

Parshat Vayehi
(1 Kings 2:1-12)
January 10, 2009
14 Tevet 5769

David\’s ascent to the monarchy was not smooth. Even after King Saul\’s death, the friction between David and the house of Saul was still readily apparent. The raw feelings created by the monarchy being wrested by David and the demise of nearly all of the members of Saul\’s family did nothing to quell this animosity. No character better represents this animus than Shimei ben Gera, who even after David assumed the kingship, doggedly hounded David about the legitimacy of his position and the means by which he attained it.

Shimei, a member of Saul\’s family, expressed his antipathy to David when David was forced to leave Jerusalem under the threat from his son Absalom. As David left the city, Shimei cursed David and threw stones at him, accusing him of responsibility for the demise of the house of Saul, all of this in David\’s hour of humiliation. (2 Samuel 16:5-14) In this episode, David somehow saw in Shimei\’s words and actions a form of expiation: \”He is abusing [me] only because the Lord told him to abuse David; and who is to say: \’why did you do that?\’\” (verse 10) Later, after David reestablished himself as king, Shimei came to David and pleaded for forgiveness: \”He said to the king: \’Let not my lord hold me guilty, and do not remember the wrong your servant committed on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem; let your Majesty give it no thought. For your servant knows he has sinned; so here I have come down today, the first of all the house of Joseph, to meet my lord the king.\’\” (Ibid. 19:20) David, against the advice of his general, forgave Shimei: \”The king said to Shimei, \’You shall not die\’; and the king gave him his oath.\” (Ibid. 24)

At the end of his life, David seems to have harbored a different attitude in counseling his son Solomon: \”You must also deal with Shimei ben Gera, the Benjaminite from Bahurim. He insulted me outrageously when I was on my way to Mahanaim; but he came down to meet me at the Jordan, and I swore to him by the Lord: \’I will not put you to the sword.\’ So do not let him unpunished…\’\” (1 Kings 2:8-9)

What caused this change in attitude? It seems to me that the following midrash attempts to fill in this gap: Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani asked Rabbi Yonathan: \”What did Shmei mean when described himself as \’the first of the house of Joseph\’? Rabbi Yonathan replied: \’How have you, in Babylonia, explained it?\’ He answered: \’This is how we explained it: When Shimei fell down before David, he said: As the righteous Joseph rewarded his brothers with kindness even though they had dealt ill with him, so should you, like Joseph, reward me with kindness, even though I have dealt badly with you.\” Rabbi Yonathan answered him: \’You have answered well. Still listen to another fine interpretation. What is meant by \”the first of the house of Joseph?\” Since all of Israel is also known as Joseph and all of Israel has done you wrong. Now all of Israel is waiting to see how you deal with me. If you accept my apology, then all of Israel will come forth and make peace with you. (Adapted from Midrash Tehillim 3:3 Buber ed. p. 37)

The midrash would have us understand that David saw what Shimei was doing as insincere and cynical. He was not looking to atone or to set an example for others. He was looking to \”work the system\” and get off easy. This explains David\’s disturbing remarks to his son, Solomon. This midrash implies that if Shimei would have been sincere, David would have acted quite differently.

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.

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