Dov Lerea

Vulnerability during the transition of power

Parashat Chaye Sarah
I Kings 1:1-31
October 29, 2021
23 Cheshvan 5782

The haftorah selected for parashat Chaye Sarah is about the complexity and societal vulnerability that emerge in a moment of transition of leadership and the transfer of power. This theme could not be more timely. Turbulent currents of unrest, dissatisfaction, jealousy and duplicity oscillate just beneath the surface of society’s apparent stability. Both Avraham and King David were aged, nearing the end of their lives. After the death of Sarah, Avraham remarries and establishes another family with Ketura. Nevertheless, none of the children born to Avraham through Ketura inherit the mantle of the sacred covenant with God. That continuity was promised to Yitzchak who must learn to shoulder his responsibilities to the past and future of what will become the children of Israel. Avraham, additionally, is explicitly clear to his servant:
And Avraham said to the senior servant of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Bereshit 24:2-4)

Avishag the Shunamite is brought to King David in his old age but without intimacy and marriage. Nevertheless, there is a parallel between these two moments in the lives of Avraham and David. Only Avraham and Sarah’s son Yitzchak was destined to continue the spiritual legacy of the family, despite Avraham’s earlier protestation:
And God said to Avraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah.cI.e., “princess.” I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.” Avraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Yishmael might live by Your favor!” (Bereshit 17:15-18)

In the background of this haftorah, furthermore, are the stages of societal development. Israelite society was initially a confederacy of autonomous tribal sovereignty from the time of the conquest of the land led by Joshua, through the generation of the prophet Samuel. Each tribe was led by a Shofet, translated as “judge,” but in actuality each was a military leader. Two themes that run throughout the entire Book of Judges set the stage for understanding our haftorah more deeply. First, every shofet is a pariah in his or her own tribe. Ehud was a lefty. Devorah, a woman. Gideon is described as cowardly. Yiftach was a criminal leader of a band of brigands and banished before the elders of his tribe implored him to save them from their enemies. Because of the tragic vow he made that led to the sacrificial death of his own daughter, the rabbis described Yiftach as unfit for leadership and a person of poor judgment. (B’reishit Rabbah, 60:3, Tanhuma Bechukotai 7) Samson was a nazir and brutal, distinguishing him as an outlier in both of these ways. Public service in the forms of political and military leadership, therefore, emerged from the unexpected candidate, from the individual whose unconventional, non-normative qualities actually nourished their potential strengths as well as exposed their vulnerabilities. This observation about Israelite leadership during the period immediately prior to King David’s ascendency manifests the implicit theme that ran throughout the books of Bereshit and Shemot. Societal conventions required the ascendency of the bechor, the first-born. Breaking this convention is the single-most continuous theme that characterizes the patriarchal families of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Breaking this convention, furthermore, lies at the root of the dysfunctionality of those generations. The struggles between Yitzchak and Yishmael, between Yaakov and Esav–even in utero–and the abject hostility acted out between both Yosef and his conspiring brothers, all reflect the tensions around conventional expectations for power and the youngest sibling selected for the mantle of leadership. Furthermore, that young sibling must devote a lifetime to struggling with this designated status, learn to grow into it, and never fully overcome the traumas associated with the revolution against birthright. God apparently chooses individuals for leadership positions not because of their birth order or even because of their accomplishments, but because of their potential development. That means that God prefers to risk choosing a leader whose flaws will inevitably cause mistaken judgments and even misdeeds and transgressions, but in whom God trusts has the potential to overcome those flaws of character, rather than choosing someone who reflects conventional expectations for leadership. Moshe himself was the younger brother. He stuttered, he lacked charisma and self-confidence. He suffered psychically from the existential torment of not knowing where he belonged or to whom. He never gained the full confidence of the people; he was often regarded essentially as an elitist from Egyptian aristocracy. And yet, Hashem saw the wisdom and strength that lay deeply embedded in Moshe’s humility. More than anything else, God, throughout the Tanach, looks for humility as the wellspring for potentially authentic leadership. This is the single most important criteria for leadership both of the Jewish people, as well as for humanity.

The second theme that runs throughout the Book of Shoftim is sometimes called, “the transgression and salvation cycle.” Each tribe, in turn, sins through syncretistic practices of idolatry. God then sends an enemy to vanquish that tribe as punishment. The tribe then calls out to God, and then an outcast military leader rises to redeem the people. However, there is no central vision for the tribes forming a nation, and by the end of the book, a civil war erupts that results in the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin, the youngest of the brothers of the generation of Yaakov.

These themes: the recurring cycles of disloyalty and dysfunctionality as a result of a confederacy lacking a unified vision, and the authenticity of leadership embedded in spiritual potential and growth, form the background to the monarchy. The people imported the prophet Samuel for a king, much to God’s chagrin and anger. Two candidates emerged: Saul and then David. They could not have been more opposite, and indeed, Saul and David represent the same sibling rivalry of hatred, guilt, violence, love, competition, and duplicity that characterized the earliest generations of the family. Saul was tall, handsome, and popular. David was a runt; small, unknown, and a redhead. The entire Book of Samuel weaves a cloth of the threads of the lives of Saul and David creating a magnificent tapestry that tells the tale of the complexity of spiritual, political, and military leadership that continues as the legacy of our people to this day.

It is enough to simply describe these tensions, however, to suggest a way of reading the haftorah of parashat Chaye Sarah. King David’s strength waned in his old age. He cannot keep himself warm. His virility has been depleted. No longer perceived as a powerful military leader, nor as an inspired poet and musician who nourished the soul of the nation, nor as a king who was capable of acknowledging and repenting of his transgressions (despite the Talmudic adage, “King David did not sin”), his older son, half brother to the young Solomon, stepped in to take the mantle of power:

Now Adoniyah son of Haggith went about boasting,- “I will be king!” He provided himself with chariots and horses, and an escort of fifty outrunners. His father had never scolded him: “Why did you do that?” He was the one born after Avshalom . He conferred with Yoav son of Tzeruiah and with the priest Aviatar, and they supported Adoniyah; but the priest Tzadok, Benaiah son of Yehoiada, the prophet Natan, Shimei and Rei, and David’s own fighting men did not side with Adoniyah. Adoniyah made a sacrificial feast of sheep, oxen, and fatlings at the Tzohelet stone which is near En-rogel; he invited all his brother princeseLit. “all his brothers sons of the king.” and all the king’s courtiers of the tribe of Yehuda; but he did not invite the prophet Natan, or Benaiah, or the fighting men, or his brother Solomon. (I Kings 1:5-10)

Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel, himself having experiencing the disastrous transitions of power in Portugal and Spain in the 16th century, described Adoniyah’s machinations for power:

As in the ways of the Arab chieftians, Adoniyah rode a chariot and had armed forces running before him [in a display of physical strength.] In the Bavli, Sanhedrin, the rabbis furthermore asked, “What was his unique quality for leadership?” They responded, “He removed the spleens and hollowed the soles of the feet of the runners [to make them run more quickly.] This also indicated that from the very beginning of his ascendency for power he violated the Torah’s prohibition against a king accumulating too much military strength. Furthermore, this displayed his arrogance…..
Perhaps this haftorah, then, teaches us about the vulnerability implicit in moments of transition. Batsheva and Natan must plan a kind of subterfuge to gain David’s focus and attention. They choreograph, with some intrigue, how Batsheva’s voice will be heard for its immediacy in an impending, unfolding crisis. Avraham’s vision was clear, his instructions explicit, and nobody stood in his way. His servant was loyal, and Avraham clarified doubts that the servant expressed. However, generations had passed. Those generations were filled with years of dysfunctionality. They contained the memories of a past history that nobody could easily acknowledge. Adoniyah exploited this moment of vulnerability All it took was a hesitation, an uncertainty, and he rose to create a new reality of who was invited to assume power and who was disenfranchised. Natan, the visionary, the court prophet, saw this just in time. What if he hadn’t?
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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