This weeks parasha, Hayyei Sarah, and its haftarah (from I Kings chapter 1) are connected in many ways, but most clearly by their use of the same Hebrew phrase, “zakein ba bayamim,” meaning “old, advanced in years,” applied to Avraham and David respectively.
The end days of Avraham and David are not all that similar (or are they? We’ll see about that.) It is said of Avraham that he died having led a full, and generally righteous life. David’s end is marked by the same sorts of moral failings and intrigues that plagued his entire lifetime. David’s failings most definitely came home to roost in his last days.
The text paints a picture of a David who is quite possibly not fully aware. I have written in a previous musing, Never Warm, about the description of David as having lost his internal flame. Even a nubile young concubine, in the person of Abishag the Shunamite, seems unable to warm David up or restore David’s vigor. David’s courtiers think a little Viagra made flesh will cure what ails the King, but David seems unwilling, unable, or otherwise able to rise to the task.
A close reading of the text may cause one to read the words “v’HaMelekh lo y’da-ah” - “the King did not know her” as implying more than the classic knowing in the biblical sense. It is a David perhaps senile, disconnected, unaware. Later, we see that David is apparently unaware of Adonijah’s machinations and proclamation of himself as King. David would really have to be pretty out of it to be unaware of this.
Bathsheva and the prophet Nathan somehow seem to reach through David’s haze, and he regains his composure and intellect long enough to put a stop to Adonijah’s attempts to usurp the throne and insure Solomon’s ascension. Where sexual titillations failed to stir David’s passions, politics and intrigue succeeded. Says a lot about David.
The text paints a picture of an Avraham still in full control. with the sense to prepare for his impending death by insuring that his legacy is secure, certain, and designated. He leaves no doubt that Isaac is to inherit all. The many sons he fathered with numerous concubines after Sarah’s death are given rewards and gifts and sent away to the east so they will not be there to challenge Isaac or cause trouble for him.
So classically, we are told to see David’s end as portrayed as reaping in old age what he sowed in life, and Avraham’s end as the end of a virtuous and full life lived.
(There is a midrash that attempts to recast David’s old-age as equally deserving of consideration as a righteous end, but I find it falls far short of its goal.)
As usual, I want to consider turning things upside-down or sideways. I’m not entirely sure that Avraham was any more deserving of the status of a righteous elder, of being zikhnah than David in any case. Yes, Avraham had a neater, more orderly end. If we are only to judge in hindsight, and in full knowledge of what the Torah says were G”d’s intentions, then Avraham did the right thing to insure Isaac as his successor. Avraham followed G”d’s instructions and left his home for an unknown place. He argued with G”d against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He properly acquired the cave in which he buried Sarah (and where he was eventually to be buried.) He faithfully prepared to slay Isaac as G”d instructed him to do.
Nevertheless, Avraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away. He fathered many sons after Ishmael and Isaac, and showered nothing in the way of legacy on any of them save Isaac. (G”d promised to further Avraham’s line through Ishmael, but Avraham sent Hagar and Ishmael off with nothing but a little bread and water.) And the kicker – Avraham faithfully prepared to slay Isaac as G”d instructed him to do. Despite the supposed outcome, I am still not prepared to accept this as a success on the part of Avraham. There is much to be troubled about in Avraham’s supposedly righteous life.
Yet, in the end, I am prepared to accept Avraham as possibly worthy of zikhnah. Why, despite the misgivings I have outlined? For one simple reason, an artifact of the text I have mentioned before over the years. While Avraham’s many other sons were not there to bury him (and I still find this troubling) both Isaac and Ishmael were. Two sons, scarred and traumatized by their father come together to bury him and honor him. I can forgive the absence of all the other sons-perhaps they were not truly worthy, simply being bought off with gifts and rewards rather than a piece of their father’s legacy. Neither Isaac nor Ishmael had any compelling reason to help bury their father. That they did must tell us something not only about Ishmael and Isaac, but about their father as well.
If I can so easily overlook Avraham’s failures to allow him to be zikhnah, why not David’s? After all, David was a great man and king despite his failures. David left a great (if somewhat fractured) legacy. This is going to be my challenge to myself this Shabbat – to see if I can find it in myself to see both Avraham and David as worthy of being venerated as zikhnah. Of course, I will extend this to people I know in my own life, and to my own family. I commend the same activities to you.
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
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