April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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Parshat Vayechi

As we have pointed out in these pages and as many of us learned in our younger years, the purpose of the haftarah is to remind the listener of events or a theme that is found in the weekly parsha or, at times, a thought that is meant to connect to the theme or mood of a specific time of year. Our haftarah this week certainly does that as it describes the final words of David HaMelech to his son and successor on the throne, Shlomo, while the parsha details the final words of Yaakov Avinu to his sons, including Yosef, who seemingly has stepped into the role of the leader of the family of Israel. Indeed, a similar choice for haftarah was made by our chachamim for the parsha of Chayei Sarah in which we read of the final days of Avraham Avinu, that choice being the perek that immediately precedes our haftarah, for it too, like this week’s selection, tells of the final days of David.

We are, however, aware of the striking contrast between the blessings given by our patriarch in the parsha and the vengeful words that David leaves to his son in our haftarah. I submit that such feelings may be understandable but are based upon misconception. The idyllic scene of the elderly father calling his children around his deathbed to bless them all is highly incompatible with the reality of an intrigue-filled royal palace struggling to secure the throne of a young king whose brother had just formed a cabal to unseat him.

This is the reality of the second perek in Melachim A. And unless we understand the events that preceded the final days of David, we will never understand why he gives this seemingly “harsh” advice to his son.

The dying king tells his successor that he must carefully watch Shim’i ben Gera who cursed David when the king was fleeing from Yerushalayim, attempting to escape his rebellious son, Avshalom. Shim’i committed a terrible sin—but was it unforgivable? Why did David tell Shlomo to put him to death? Was there no room for mercy for a man who had apologized to David and greeted his return to Yerushalayim with one thousand men from his tribe of Binyamin?

The answer is a resounding NO! Shim’i’s offensive words were not the primary reason for the capital punishment that was advised. Shim’i was a leader in the tribe of Benjamin—a tribe whose support was crucial for David, for it was the tribe of Sha’ul from whom David inherited the throne (as son-in-law). The resentment against David from that tribe was fully understandable, and yet, over the years, David had won their support. Shim’i’s act of defiance was an act of rebellion that could well have turned his tribe against David. The threat he posed to the young king’s reign was real. And so, wisely, the father told his son to keep an eye on this rebel and, at the first sign of defiance, to have him killed. Which is exactly what happened.

David’s second “target” was his former chief-of-staff, Yoav. We are naturally troubled by his advice since Yoav was a faithful general for David throughout his reign, fighting his battles and removing his enemies. Furthermore, he was David’s nephew (!!!), son of David’s sister, Tzruya. How can we understand or accept David’s directive “lo tored seivatu b’shalom,” “Do not let him die peacefully”?

Here too there was an ample reason. On quite a number of occasions, Yoav acted independently of the king, often in a way that undermined David’s specific wishes and plans. David mentions a few of those actions (the murder of the generals Avner and Amasa), but throughout Sefer Shmuel we find David criticizing Yoav and even cursing him (Shmuel B 3:29). And when David was in his weakest state, Yoav’s independence led him to join Adoniah’s rebellion, hoping to undermine David’s decision to place Shlomo on the throne. Yoav, with a powerful military following and a dangerous independent spirit, could not be ignored. He too was a threat to a peaceful succession to the throne and to the establishment of a Davidic dynasty. He too had to be dealt with.

There are times when reading the haftarah alone can give us only a partial story. If we want to truly understand the haftarot and the stories behind them, I advise everyone to open the Sefer HaSefarim and learn.


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

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