Our parasha, Hayyei Sarah, and its accompanying haftarah (from I Kings 1:1-31) present two very different examples of leaders in old age. Abraham works to insure his lineage. He first makes sure that Isaac marries into the extended clan, rather than “go native” by marrying a Canaanite. Then Abraham clearly designates Isaac as his successor, willing him all his property and inheritance.
David, on the other hand, seems to have lost control and awareness, giving in to the disabilities of his old age. He is so far gone down that path that the King who was once, for lack of a better term, a super stud, can’t even get it up for the most beautiful woman (and virgin) in the kingdom who is sent to comfort him.
[One has to wonder what Abishag the Shunnamite, made of all this. I’d love to give voice to her narrative. Chosen for the honor of serving and bedding King David, whose sexual reputation and appetite must have been of enormous proportions, she finds that not only is he not interested –or not capable – of having sex with her, but also that her ministering to him doesn’t seem to be all that helpful (or appreciated?.) David remains, as I wrote about in a previous musing, Never Warm. Yet she is also present in the King’s chambers when Bathsheva comes to remind David of his promise to make Solomon his successor. Though the text is not explicit, she was also probably present for the remaining scenes of the haftarah, first when the prophet Nathan slyly admonishes David for his lack of awareness of Adoniyah’s political machinations. Then David summons Bathsheva again (there’s a little oddity in the text here, because you have to sort of read in between the lines to determine that Bathsheva must have been sent out while Nathan and David talked, and then summoned back. Or, one could read it as another sly dig at David’s poor mental state. The text tells us that Bathsheva was in the midst of talking to David when Nathan was announced. Nathan proceeds to tell David the very same news that Bathsheva had told him. David is finally provoked enough to come out of his state of ennui and promises to keep his oath to make Solomon his successor. Was David so out of it that he was unaware that Bathsheva was still in the room, and summoned her. The text doesn’t really support this, because it says, after David’s “Summon Bathsheva!” that she entered the King’s presence and stood before the King. But it could be that she just politely stayed in the background while Nathan was talking, and then stepped into David’s field of vision when summoned. In my mind I see a slight comparison between this scene and the one near the end of the musical “Man of La Mancha” when Sancho and Aldonza, comforting him on his death bed, get Alonso Quihano to once again assume the bearing of Don Quixote. Yes, I know I made this exact same reference in two previous musings, the above referenced Never Warm, and last year’s “Still Tilting at the Same Windmills.”) If, indeed, Abishag was in the room during all of this, one truly wonders what she was thinking. Perhaps there’s a new Upstairs/Downstairs or Downton Abbey lurking around here. (There was that short-lived NBC series, Kings, loosely based on the Davidic monarchy only with modern technology.) So now I’ve got two stories to write – that long promised work about the time after the Akedah which I believe that Isaac spent living with Hagar and Ishmael (which I hinted at in Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't – Yet and Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishmael II), and now David’s last years through the eyes of Abishag. Anyone care to collaborate on either of these?]
Abraham really worked to keep things neat and orderly. He remained keenly aware. He played the merry dance needed to secure a burial place for Sarah. He made sure Isaac married into his tribe and inherited. The text describes both Abraham and David as very old (that is, in fact, the generally accepted linkage between the parasha and the haftarah) yet with very different realities in their old age. It’s implied, though not stated, that David may be largely responsible for his own physical and mental state. He could, perhaps, have chosen to be as alert and involved as Abraham. On the other hand, David’s state in old age may be a commentary on how he spent the earlier decades of his life engaging in questionable behaviors and activities.
If that’s the case, then what about Abraham? Where’s the critique for Abraham being so willing to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice? (Was Sarah’s death part of his punishment for that?) Where is the rapprochement between Abraham and Isaac? Yes, Abraham has his servant go and get a bride for Isaac. (Isaac repays the courtesy by bedding Rebekkah in Sarah’s tent!) Yet there’s no hint of dialog or communication between Abraham and Isaac at any time between the akedah and Abraham’s death. (Yet there is implied communication between Isaac and Ishmael, who both come back to bury their father. Isaac does not come to his mother’s burial. Perhaps a geographic reality, or perhaps there’s more to the story. We can only speculate. Much has been said about how Isaac might have felt towards his father for being willing to sacrifice him, but to explore how this may have affected Isaac’s relationship with Sarah involves creating all new midrash. Perhaps, one day, that will be part of my book on Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar.
So here we have them, Abraham and David, both imperfect men, both leaving a lasting impact on Judaism, indeed, upon the world. (The historical reality of their existence matters not – the impact of their stories is very real and tangible upon human history and Jewish history.) The story of Abraham’s last years are presented in a mostly positive light, whereas David’s later years, at least as portrayed in this haftarah, don’t seem so positive. However, if we read on in the text it gets….worse. While David does as promised, putting Solomon on the throne, and even sparing the life of Adoniyah, his last words (which I wrote about just a few weeks back when I wrote about Moshe’s last words in parashat Haazinu) instruct Solomon to take revenge. Yes, he says a few nice and important things about rulers needing to be just, and follow G”d and G”d’s commandments. Then he tells Solomon to kill a few folks.
The story gets even more interesting after David’s death. Adoniyah comes to Bathsheva. He complains that rightfully he should be king, and asks her to go to Solomon with a strange request. He asks that Solomon allow him to take Abishag the Shunnamite as a wife. Bathsheva, surprisingly, does as Adoniyah ask. The request so enrages Solomon, that (yes, this great and wise King) orders Adoniyah killed. (For me, this is all the more reason to want to examine this whole saga from the perspective of Abishag.)
The biblical text certainly portrays Abraham and David very differently. Abraham had an orderly exit from life, David, not so much. Yet both men left behind them very troubled sons, and some questionable, even uncertain legacies. People are complicated, they really cannot be reduced to stereotypes. Torah and Tanakh are not entirely unique among ancient literature in their portrayal of human beings with warts and all. The Jewish sacred texts are perhaps less prone than some from ancient (and modern) times and civilizations to evoke stereotypes, even as prone as they are to utilize metaphor. The Jewish texts even portray, to some degree, G”d as complicated and imperfect, though perhaps less so, and in a less whimsical way than, say the Greek legends of the gods, where anthropomorphism abounds.
What’s the take away? I’m not entirely sure. Abraham works to secure an orderly succession. Works in the short term, until Isaac proves to be (surprise-not!) less than an optimal parent, and passes this same tendency on to the next generations as well. David causes a messy transition, and this results, for a short time, in a relatively positive state of things for the Kingdom under the rule of Solomon, Yet even Solomon’s wisdom is not enough to prevent the dissolution of the united Monarchy. So perhaps one take away for me from this is not unlike a lesson I often talk about in reference to parenting. You can be a perfect parent and still raise a child who grows up to be a monster, and you can be a truly lacking parent who raises a child who grows up to be a true hero. Humans plan, G”d laughs. So maybe we shouldn’t get too hung up on things, and especially on judging ourselves.
Sigh. There is so much more I want to write. More about Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar. More about how Abishag might have viewed all that happened around her. I’ve dabbled in this sort of speculative midrash before. I’ve written brief extracts from the “Journal of Lot” and “Moshe’s Diary.” These seem comparatively easy compared to the task of imagining the aforementioned situations.
Maybe I should have a contest, and ask my readers to suggest opening lines for these two potential books. I’ve already imagined snatches of dialog and scenes from these two potential works. Perhaps all that’s stopping me from truly starting on them is my own ennui. So my task this Shabbat is to spur myself to action, to really start on these two projects, one of which I have been teasing my readers about for years, and another freshly borne from what I wrote for this week’s musing.
“Abishag never thought of herself as pretty. There was no shortage of beautiful women in her town, Shunam, or, for that matter, in all the valley of Jezreel. Why then was it that she was the one who seemed to catch the eye of every passing man?”
“Ishmael lifted his eyes up from the bowl of stew and peered out of the tent, the stirred up dust having caught his eye. He strained hard to discern the image of the traveler headed towards them on the road, but could not see clearly. “There’s something familiar about that walk” he thought to himself, as he stood and headed out to greet the traveler.”
Neither of them great opening lines, but they’re a start.
Maybe, just maybe, my writings spur you to think about things. Maybe you have some thoughts and insights on a midrashic story from Abishag’s viewpoint, or for telling the story of the time, after his father tried to sacrifice him to G”d, a troubled Isaac went off to live with his Ishmael and Hagar. I’d truly love to hear them. Help me tell these stories, just aching to be written.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musing on this parasha:
Hayyei Sarah 5773 - Still Tilting at Windmills
Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Zikhnah
Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishamel II
Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 - A High Price
Hayei Sarah 5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles
Chayeh Sarah 5761-L'cha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5760 - Call Me Ishmael
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't