Saturday, March 25, 2023

Parshat Vayechi

The first section of the second chapter in Melachim Aleph — the haftarah selection for today — is made up of the final message given by David Hamelech to his successor, Shlomo. In the parsha, we read of how Yaakov Avinu blesses his sons and passes the “torch” — the mesorah — down from one generation to another. This too, is true of King David, who passes the torch of kingship to his son — marking the first example in Jewish history of a regent handing the ruling power to his son — thereby creating a dynasty. The language used in sefer Melachim (“Vayikreivu yemei David lamoot”) also parallels that which is used in our parasha (“Vayikreivu yimei Yisrael lamoot”). Additionally, these “tzava’ot” (“last wills and testaments”) also mark the ending of two eras in our history: the era of the patriarchs and that of war and conquest.

Nonetheless — much as we mentioned when comparing the two readings for parshat Chayei Sarah — the contrast between the words of the aging regent and those of the elderly patriarch, is more striking than the similarities. Once the sons had healed the schism that threatened to tear apart the family, Yaakov is able to call all of his sons to his bedside and offer each one a fitting blessing for his future. David, however, was still smarting from the attempted coup of his oldest surviving son, Adoniah, and, fearing possible attempts to undermine Shlomo’s hold upon the throne, does not offer a blessing to his successor — but, rather, advice to rid himself of those who threaten to destabilize Shlomo’s reign. In truth, these contrasts are so powerful that we almost wonder why, indeed, this haftarah was chosen to be read this week at all!

I would suggest that much of our discomfort lies in the term “blessing.” In fact, Yaakov’s final words to his sons were not blessings, but “signposts” for the future. The patriarch himself says that by introducing his words with the phrase: “… v’agida lachem et asher yikra etchem b’acharit hayamim — I will tell you what will happen to you in the latter days.” Certainly, most of his predictions are positive and complimentary, seeming to be simple blessings. They are, however, meant to prepare them (and their descendants) for future events — especially the conquest and division of the land of Israel — so that they would earn God’s blessings. Even those sons who heard rather harsh words from their father understood that they were meant to learn from the message, so as not to repeat the same mistakes. It is this, that a parent wants to leave to his children; not simply good wishes, but life lessons to direct them when he/she is gone.

And, this is precisely what David HaMelech does in his final words to Shlomo HaMelech.

The words don’t seem very nice and, certainly, couldn’t be described as “blessings,” but they were important words meant to help the young king succeed in leading his nation and securing his reign over the people. Note that the first message David leaves to Shlomo makes it very clear what the most important thing is to succeed: “Veshamarta et mishmeret Hashem Elokecha, lalechet b’derachav leshmor mitzvotav … kakatuv betorat Moshe,” to listen to Hashem and observe the mitzvot of the Torah. It may not be a blessing, but it is the most essential requirement for success.

No... David’s words are not pretty, but they are the most essential message that Shlomo should carry in heart throughout his life, in order to secure a future for himself and for his nation.

We all want blessings from our elders, our teachers and our holy rabbis. But, far more essential than their “good wishes,” is a lesson of how to lead our lives to make us more worthy of God’s blessings.

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.

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