Dov Lerea
Dov Lerea

King David and Yaakov Avinu: The Tragedy of vision

Parashat VaYechi
Haftorah: I Kings 2:1-12
December 17, 2021/13 Tevet 5782
The Haftorah of Parashat VaYechi compares the final moments of the lives of Yaakov and King David. These final moments are linked by the same phrase, word for word: vayikr’vu yeme Yisrael/David lamoot, “As the days of Yisrael’s/David’s dying drew near….’ (cf. Bereshit 47:29 and I Kings 2:1) Both leaders took the opportunity to name expectations, give advice and even to admonish their children before their deaths. By comparing King David’s final words to Yaakov, we gain a lens that brings into sharp focus several underlying themes that characterize the Jewish people, and those themes are not necessarily pleasant to acknowledge.
In four short verses, David recalls events and people that hold unresolved conflicts or commitments he wants to preserve. First, David speaks to Shlomo about Yoav ben Tzruriah:
Further, you know what Yoav son of Tzruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s forces, Avner son of Ner and Amasa son of Yeter: he killed them, shedding blood of war in peacetime, staining the belt of his loins and the sandals on his feet with blood of war. So act in accordance with your wisdom, and see that his white hair does not go down to Sheol in peace. (I Kings 2:5-6)
The background will shed light on why David felt so strongly about Yoav’s demise. Tzruriah was David’s sister, and therefore Yoav was David’s nephew. ( I Chronicles 2:15-16) He was captain of David’s army. Yoav had two brothers, Avishai and Asa’el. Asa’el was killed by Avner, who was the late King Saul’s cousin and commander-in-chief of Saul’s army. Yoav avenged his brother’s death by killing Avner, after David had secured a peace treaty with Avner and the House of Saul, preventing further national discord and chaos. (II Samuel 2:13-3:21; 3:27)
Yoav was also directly involved in events surrounding David’s son, Avshalom, who rebelled against his father. David was heartbroken and loved Avshalom deeply, and ordered that Avshalom should not be killed. Nevertheless, when Avshalom was fleeing, his long hair became entangled in the branches of a tree, and Yoav’s men killed him. (II Samuel 18: 1-33) News of Avshalom’s death sent David in a depressive state of mourning. When Yoav heard of David’s grief, he reprimanded David and accused him of lowering the morale of the army. David met with his troops and praised them. (II Samuel 19:1-8) Afterwards, however, David replaced Yoav with Amasa, David’s nephew. (II Samuel 20:8-13) This precipitated Yoav’s joining forces with Adoniyah, a contender for the throne instead of Shlomo, and eventually killing Amasa.
These events held two deeply unresolved feelings for David. One feeling was the unresolved grief over the death of Avshalom. Despite the fact that Avshalom rebelled against him, and caused David to flee for his life, David could not suppress his love for his son. Avshalom was handsome (II Samuel 14:25) and charismatic to all who engaged with him. (II Samuel 15:1 ff) Upon hearing of Avshalom’s death, David famously and tragically cried, O my son Avshalom, my son, my son Avshalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Avshalom, my son, my son! (II Samuel 18:33) David, therefore, did not forgive Yoav’s order to kill Avshalom.
The tragedy of Avshalom, moreover, might be a microcosmic version of a national drama of intrigue, disloyalty and rebellion. Just as David’s family became divided, so too was the nation. During David’s lifetime, the heirs of King Saul still harbored deep resentment and loathing for David. When Yoav avenged his brother’s, Asa’el’s, death by killing Avner, King Saul’s commanding officer, the fissure deepened. David had already effected a peace treaty when Avner was killed. Yoav undermined David’s attempts at peace with King Saul’s loyalists, and he remained unable to express empathy for David’s broken heart over Avshalom’s death, even while advising David politically.
King David’s life was filled with tragic conflict. He had to replace Saul, but deeply respected and revered him. He played music to soothe Saul’s depression. He loved Jonathan, Saul’s son, who tragically died with his father on Mt. Gilboa. David lamented Saul’s death and chanted a lyric dirge. (Including the famous line, O how the mighty have fallen! II Samuel 1) He executed the Amalekite who reported that he fulfilled Saul’s request to help him die by falling on his spear. He loved Avshalom even though he rebelled against him. He sent Uriah to his death on the front lines so that he could take Batsheva as a wife. He was constantly rebuked by his prophet, Natan, and assumed responsibility for his misdeeds, suffering consequences.
The rabbis struggled with the tragic conflicts of David’s life by trying to prove that David’s behaviors were never truly sinful: Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: Anyone who says that David sinned with Batsheva is nothing other than mistaken, as it is stated: “And David succeeded in all his ways; and the Lord was with him” (I Samuel 18:14) (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 56a) The sugya there is so contorted that it reveals the deep sadness surrounding David’s life experiences. By trying to whitewash every misdeed, the rabbis provide a list of them all.
The rabbis did not want to highlight the conflicts and misdeeds. However, by arguing as they do, they also found a way to evoke David’s humanity. He was a poetic, romantic, deeply spiritual, loyal, courageous, passionate leader. Of course there would be tragic errors, misdeeds and sin. When one sins, there is a call to repentance and consequences to endure. However, over all else, David loved his son, Avshalom. He loved the Jewish people. He loved God’s anointed King Saul despite Saul’s repeated attempts to kill him. He loved God and God’s vision and hope for a united people. Yoav undermined all of these loves. He was small-minded, vindictive, cruel, un-nuanced, and ultimately, disloyal. Therefore, admonished David to Shlomo, execute him after he died.
David’s description of debt to the sons of Barzilai lies at counterpoint to his reflections on Yoav. David said, But deal graciously with the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, for they befriended me when I fled from your brother Avshalom; let them be among those that eat at your table. (I Kings 2:7) Here, the back story of Barzilai is the opposite of Yoav. Barzilai was a wealthy man who lived in Rogelim in Gilead. He served David when David fled for his life during the revolt of his son, Avshalom. (II Samuel 17:27) Barzilai cared for David during the rebellion. He offered David refuge, safety, food, shelter, and companionship. When the rebellion ended, David offered to take Barzilai back to Jerusalem and reward him. However, Barzilai, an old man, preferred to live out his days at home. Nevertheless, he asked David to take his servant. Chimham with him, and provide for him. As such, Barzilai was an exceedingly giving person to the end of his days. (II Samuel, chapters 17-19) Barzilai evoked all of the values that spoke to David’s core: loyalty, love, graciousness, generosity, humility and respect.
Finally, David spoke of Shimei ben Gera. Shimei ben Gera was a descendant of Saul. As David was fleeing Avshalom, Shimei followed him and cursed David. He was not only verbally abusive. He also hurled stones and dirt at David and at his troops as they marched. He followed and tormented them. After the rebellion, however, he traveled with a large military entourage from Binyamin to meet David as he crossed the Jordan river, and threw himself at David’s feet, imploring him for forgiveness. (II Samuel 16:5-14; 19:16-23). At each juncture, Avishai, David commander-in-chief, recommended that he kill Shimei ben Gera, but each time David replied that this was God’s will. Shimei represents a cross between Yoav and Barzilai. On the one hand, he expressed the festering hatred that continued to divide the nation between followers of Saul and King David. Shimei ben Gera perpetuated the great lie that the monarchy was stolen from Saul. David refused to engage; he understood that national unity required rising above the torpid resentment and anger that continued to rage in Shimei’s heart. However, David wanted to protect his son, Shlomo, from the conspirators who would wait until David’s death to then foment another insurrection. So David ordered Shimei’s execution.
These exhortations to Shlomo at the end of David’s life are parallel to Yaakov’s final words to his sons. David had opened with a statement of vision for the future:
Keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in God’s ways and following God’s laws, God’s commandments, God’s rules, and God’s admonitions as recorded in the teaching of Moshe, in order that you may succeed in whatever you undertake and wherever you turn. Then the LORD will fulfill the promise that God made concerning me: ‘If your descendants are scrupulous in their conduct, and walk before Me faithfully, with all their heart and soul, your line on the throne of Israel shall never end!’ (I Kings 2:3-4)
Yaakov alludes to the future of the family by commanding his sons to return to eretz canaan to bury him in the cave of the Machpelah, acquired by Avraham, fulfilling God’s covenantal promise to the family. What began as a familial covenantal relationship through Avraham to Yaakov, culminated in David’s pronouncement to Shlomo. Before these final words, though, Yaakov spoke to each son: Reuven was unstable, Shimon and Levi, enraged and murderous, Yehuda, strong, Zevulun, protector of the shoreline, Yissachar, hard working and stubborn as a mule, Dan, treacherous as a snake, Naftali, swift as a gazelle, Binyamin, a ravenous wolf. There is passion to be curbed, anger to be controlled, loyalty to be deepened, reliability to be learned. The family has potential to grow into a nation, and David saw nationally what Yaakov described within a single family. By juxtaposing the final moments of Yaakov and David, the rabbis teach us to look inward. Who are we as a people? Who have we become? Are we like Yoav, Barzilai, or Shimei? Will we grow in wisdom as David demands of Shlomo? Are we dissembling like Reuven, or strong like Yehuda? Who are we now, and what must we come to understand about ourselves, to grow into the nation David portrays to Shlomo: Keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in God’s ways and following God’s laws, God’s commandments, God’s rules, and God’s admonitions as recorded in the teaching of Moshe, in order that you may succeed in whatever you undertake and wherever you turn.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov
About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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