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work contains two items:
* D’var Torah on the Parasha (on this occasion, on the Haftara)
* Questions on different levels on the Parasha and the Haftara.
King David’s life was drawing to a close, and he gave his final instructions to (Solomon), his son… (Kings I 2:1).
Parashat Vayechi relates the details of Jacob’s final words and blessings to his children, which assigned each son their respective ultimate roles in shaping the Israelite nation. The Haftara recalls King David’s final words.
They differ from Jacob’s in three fundamental ways. Firstly, unlike Jacob, he communicated his message to one son only – Solomon. Secondly, he stressed that his future success would be dependent in his ‘following the right path’ – Jacob, by contrast, seems to have taken the future good deeds of his progeny for granted. Thirdly, he left his son some ‘unfinished business’ to take care of, and most of it was of a highly unpleasant nature.
That unfinished business was to liquidate certain individuals who caused David great distress. They were Joab, his chief general, and Shimi ben Geira, who, according to the Talmud (Berachot 17a) was David’s teacher, and also confidante and advisor.
Joab killed Abner and Amasa - two military commanders. Abner, as the text relates, had originally been Saul’s premier general, but after his death and some unseemly ‘goings-on’ at the court of his successor, decided to leave that household and move over to David. Joab knew nothing about David’s acceptance of Abner, and on his first meeting with him stabbed him to death ‘in the fifth rib’. In so doing, Joab assumed that Abner was David’s deadly enemy – as he had been in the time of Saul.
Near the end of his life, David wished to replace Joab with Amasa. That was because he was furious that Joab had dealt the final deathblow to his son Absalom following Absalom’s almost successful rebellion against David. On a later campaign, Joab met Amasa and stabbed him to death – again ‘in the fifth rib’. In both cases the text implies that he murdered them in a cowardly and treacherous way after gaining their confidence.
Shimi ben Geira had sided with Absalom in his rebellion against David, and, in so doing, publicly execrated him with vile curses. Although he profusely apologized to him after Absalom’s rebellion proved to have failed, and later on sided with David and Solomon during Adonijah’s rebellion, David nevertheless told Solomon to ‘put him on the list’ to be ‘dealt with’.
On a kindlier note, David urged Solomon to show special kindness to the family of Barzilai of Gilead – who in his old age had gone out of his way to supply David with board and lodging during the hardest time of his life. That was when his and his followers’ lives were in grave danger as he fled from his patricidal son, Absalom. Solomon was to include Barzilai’s family amongst ‘those who sat at his table’. His loyalty to David was to be rewarded publicly, so that people would draw proper lessons for their own behavior.
The obvious question: why did King David leave those unpleasant tasks for his son? Why did he not issue the royal decree for Joab’s removal from office after he murdered Abner – or Amasa? And why did he promise on oath to spare Shimi’s life after his apology, instead of putting him to death under the royal privilege?
In answering this question, it is essential to look at the stages of David’s life as king, and at his relationship with G-d during those respective stages.
When Abner moved over to David’s side and Joab murdered him, David himself was in a very vulnerable situation. He was not king over all Israel – Israel was a divided kingdom, and he ruled, rather tenuously, over Judah only. The northern part of the country was until then loyal to the ruling house of Saul, which at that time was ‘becoming weaker and weaker’.
Thus David had to establish his credibility to those loyal to the House of Saul – Saul himself had been his murderous enemy. He did this by publicly mourning Abner, who was their beloved commander, and in joining his funeral procession. At the same time his position in the south of the country was not yet strong enough to demand Joab’s removal from office. His own position as king was not well established, and Joab seems to have already been enjoying public confidence and popularity. In short, David needed him.
David’s lament for Abner finished with the words: ‘I am tender, and anointed as king. These men (Joab and his family) are too strong for me. May G-d pay he that did this act of wickedness in a manner commensurate with his wickedness.’ (Sam. II 3:39) In other words he handed the matter over to G-d, requesting Him to intervene personally.
In having to please both parts of the country, David used his skills as a political tightrope walker. In fact, subsequent events suggest that David never ruled over a united Israelite kingdom in the same way as his son, but rather, he ruled over two separate entities – each having entered into a separate personal contract with him.
But the words ‘I am tender’ may also mean tender in faith. Deep down, David felt that he should have removed Joab in some way or other, but his faith was too ‘tender’ to hand his own need for popular acclaim over to G-d. That was his test from G-d. And in saying that he was tender, he expressed regret that he was spiritually too weak at that early stage of his monarchy to place more faith in G-d by taking more decisive action.
Later on he probably wished to take action against Joab, but could not – for a different reason. Not because of lack of faith, but because G-d had withdrawn His protection from him. The circumstances in which he came to marry Bathsheba - the woman who was to be the mother of his successor, Solomon, were stated in the text to be ‘evil in the eyes of G-d’. (ibid 11:27) As a result, Nathan the Prophet brought the G-d’s sentence on him saying:
And now the sword shall never depart from your House – because you despised Me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite (Bathsheba) for yourself as a wife. (ibid 12:10)
It seems that from then onwards David regarded his many misfortunes as G-d’s punishment. That explains why he took Amnon’s murder, Absalom’s rebellion, and later on Adonijah’s rebellion (sons one, three, and four respectively) with comparative stoicism. In addition he initially shrugged off Shimi ben Geira’s curses – the fact that his teacher and mentor turned against him were part and parcel of having to take what was due to him. David’s relating to his misfortunes in that way showed spiritual progression. Instead of doing the human thing of wreaking revenge on those threatening his monarchy, he saw the Hand of G-d in everything that happened to him – he had sinned, and he had to pay the price with as much good grace as possible. Thus the distress brought to him by Shimi’s curses and Joab’s murder of Amasa was a product of the negative spiritual emanations of his sin. It was his sin, rather than his enemies, that were the root of the tensions and suffering of his last years.
By the time he was about to die, he entered his third final stage in his relationship with G-d. As Job would have put it (c.f. Job 3:17): ‘The wicked had ceased from troubling, and the weary were at rest.’ David’s opponents were no longer a threat. He knew then that he was forgiven. And that he was blessed.
At that stage he could not give an execution order in his own right because these people had done G-d’s bidding by ensuring that the sword should not depart from his house. That does not mean that they did not exercise free will and that they had not attacked the monarchy. They were guilty. Had they been worthier, G-d would have executed his judgment through other, less worthy people. As the Talmud puts it: ‘G-d brings good through worthy people and bad through guilty people.’
It was left to Solomon to give the monarchy a clean slate by ‘observing the commandments of G-d’. (Kings I 2:3) However Solomon was not told to murder Joab and Shimi gratuitously, or in vengeance for the trouble they gave to his father. Nevertheless, David was shrewd enough to see the underlying deep character flaws in both of them, to the degree that both were dangers to Solomon’s monarchy. Joab’s aggression and impulsiveness were already established. Shimi, as Abarbanel explains, had let David down to such a degree in the capacity of his former mentor, that he could no longer be trusted at the royal court. He might win Solomon’s confidence and then betray him.
Solomon needed a reason to order their execution independent of anything that they did to David. That is why David told did not tell Solomon to execute them, but to ‘act wisely’ against them. Thus Joab’s ordered assassination followed his challenging Solomon’s monarchy by backing Adonijah. And Shimi’s soon followed because he defied King Solomon’s initial order that put him under house arrest.
PARASHAT VAYECHI – FOR THE STUDENT AND FOR AROUND THE TABLE
THE TEXT OF PARASHAT VAYECHI...
Who said to whom, and in what circumstances?
(a) I will do as you say.
(b) Who are these?
(c) May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.
(d) Judah is a lion cub.
(e) G-d, I long for your salvation!
(f) I will go up... and bury my father.
(g) Am I in the place of G-d?
(h) G-d will certainly remember you and bring you... to the Land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
...AND THE TEXT OF HAFTARAT PARASAT VAYECHI
(i) Be strong, and become a man!
(j) You shall act according to your wisdom.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT OF PARASHAT VAYECHI...
(a) Joseph to his father Jacob (48:30), agreeing to ensure that his burial would not be in Egypt, but in the Patriarchal tomb in the Holy Land.
(b) These are the words Jacob exclaimed in Joseph's presence when he set eyes on Ephraim and Menasseh (49:8) in his old age.
(c) Jacob, in blessing his grandsons, Ephraim and Menasseh (48:20) - initiating the text henceforth used for giving blessings.
(d) Jacob, in blessing his son Judah (49:9) with powers of leadership before his death.
(e) Jacob, in blessing his son, Dan (49:18). [Commentators read in this a reference to the last recorded words of Samson, one of his descendants, as he brought down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines, crushing himself in the process.] (Judges 16:28)
(f) Joseph to Pharaoh (50:5), in persuading him to let him leave Egypt temporarily to bury his father Jacob in the family tomb in the Holy Land.
(g) Joseph to his brothers following their father's death (50:19), after they begged his forgiveness for grievously wronging him.
(h) Joseph to his brothers on his death bed - reminding them that the Israelites' permanent home was the Holy Land and that their presence in Egypt was to be only a temporary phenomenon. (50:24)
...AND TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT OF HAFTARAT PARASHAT VAYECHI
(i) King David, in his final words to his son and successor, Solomon (Kings I 2:2).
(j) King David to Solomon (Kings I 2:6), in the same circumstances as above. 'You shall act according to your wisdom' refers to his impetuous commander, Joab, who needlessly put to death two people who, by the time they were murdered, were David's close allies: Avner (Samuel II 3:27) and Amasa (ibid. 20:10). David had not succeeded in catching up with him in his own lifetime - he left that to his son, Solomon. (See Kings I 2:34)
RASHI ON PARASHAT VAYECHI
From where, according to Rashi's commentary, may the following be deduced?
(a) 'Bow down to the fox when he has his hour.' (There are times when a great person should show respect to an inferior person)
(b) The Shechina (Divine Presence) is always above the head of a sick person.
(c) Express severe criticism by condemning the wrong specific act: do not assassinate the general character of the wrongdoer.
(d) Both those that learn Torah and those who support Torah have great merit: indeed one activity complements the other.
(e) One may tell untruths to promote family harmony.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON RASHI ON PARASHAT VAYECHI
(a) The text states that Jacob bowed down to his son Joseph after he agreed on oath (47:31) to promote his burial in the Holy Land. Although Joseph was only the 'fox' - the Patriarch's son, he was unique in having the political key to obtain permission to leave Egypt for that purpose. (Talmud: Megillah 16b)
(b) From the same verse as above - 'Jacob bowed down at the head of the bed' (47:31). According to this explanation, he did not bow down to his son Joseph per se, but to the Divine Presence in the vicinity. On that, the Talmud pins the tradition that the Shechina (Divine Presence) is always above the head of a sick person. (Shabbat 12b)
(c) When Jacob sharply rebuked his sons Simeon and Levy for their impetuousness in killing the people of Shechem over the rape of Dinah, he cursed only their anger (49:7), without assassinating their personalities as people.
(d) Rashi explains Jacob's cryptic blessings to Zebulun and Issachar as stating that the former's forte would be in business and trade, whilst the latter's would be in studying Torah and spiritual leadership (49:13-14). Their working in partnership together (c.f. Deut. 33:18) means that as Issachar has a share of Zebulun's acquired wealth, Zebulun has a corresponding share in Issachar's Torah study. That precedent sets the tone of the relationships between Torah institutions and their financial benefactors.
(e) After Jacob's death, Joseph's brothers feared that Joseph might use his political powers to avenge their treatment of him earlier in life. They approached Joseph telling him, by the command of their father (50:16), to forgive them. There is nothing on record in the text to state that Jacob gave any such order, but they invented it to prevent any future family trouble. (Gen. Rabbah 100:8)
OTHER COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT VAYECHI
1. Why, according to Hirsch, did Jacob insist on being buried in the Holy Land?
2. How, according to Abarbanel, may Jacob's wish to transported for burial in Holy Land be reconciled with the stated tradition against such a practice? That tradition is recorded in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 111). It quotes Jeremiah 2:7: 'You came and contaminated My Land and you made My inheritance as an abomination'. On that theme, R. Eleazar adds: 'In your lives you did not go up - shall you come and contaminate My land in death?'
3. What is the significance, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, of all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet being used in Judah's blessing except the letter 'zayin'?
4. When, according to the Malbim, did the first phase of the Israelite servitude in Egypt begin?
5. Why, according to the Talmud (Sotah 13b), was Joseph's place of burial in the Holy Land the city of Shechem? (Joshua 24:32)
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON OTHER COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT VAYECHI.
1. Hirsch derives from the closing words of the previous Parasha (47:27) that the Israelites were feeling more and more settled in Egypt. They began to look to the Nile rather than to the Jordan. By insisting on being buried in the Holy Land, Jacob sought to demonstrate to his sons that Egypt was not the permanent home for the Israelites.
2. Abarbanel explains that only the corpses of the wicked contaminate the Holy Land. Insisting on being buried in Israel after constantly rejecting it and detesting it, and the Mitzvot, is the act of hypocrisy that 'contaminates My Land'. However, Abarbanel stresses that people living worthy and upright lives deserve to have the merit of being buried in the Holy Land...
3. Rabbeinu Bachya points out that in blessing Judah, Jacob used all the letters except 'zayin'. That is a hint that the future Israelite monarchy will not be based on 'klei zayin' - weapons, but on truth and justice. 'Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,' says G-d, the Lord of Hosts. (Zacharia 4:6)
4. According to the Malbim, the servitude in Egypt started at the time the adults left Egypt to bury Jacob, leaving the children behind (50:8). He deduces that the children had to remain as Pharaoh had specifically ordered that to be so. He did this to show the Israelites were not free agents. That is why Joseph had to assure his brothers (50:24) that G-d would remember them and (eventually) bring them out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
5. The Talmud states that Joseph was eventually buried in Shechem because his brother tribes wished to make amends for their ill-treatment of him in that very place, for it was in the Shechem area that they sold him.
SOME ITEMS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Following Rashi to 48:1, why did Jacob wish to reveal events of the future to his sons at the final stage of his life? And why, following Rashi’s commentary, should that prophecy have left Jacob’s mind at the moment he wished to do so?
2. In the section dealing with the blessings of Jacob, Jacob appears to be rebuking some of his sons, designating roles to others, and only explicitly blessing Joseph. However the future of Jacob’s children does not seem to fit into what he said to them. Joseph – blessed – was a father of two tribes that ultimately suffered ignominious exile under the Assyrian Empire around 720 BCE, together with the rest of the Northern Kingdom. In contrast, Levi, severely rebuked because of his role in the massacre of the people of Shechem, fathered children whose descendants thrived within Judea, up to and including the present day. How may this be explained?
*Please note – My own attempts to deal with the issues related in #1 and #2 may be found in the archives for last year on Shema Yisrael – on Parashat Vayechi.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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