Chayei Sarah: Legacies Unforeseen

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This week we read the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, which deals with the
death of Sarah and Avraham’s subsequent efforts to find a wife for his
son Yitzhak. In the haftarah, another patriarch, King David, also has
to make arrangements for the orderly transition of generations- but he
does so in reaction to a palace plot by one of his sons to take the
kingship from another.

You can read the details of how the plot is foiled in the second link,
below, but what is interesting to me is the prologue to the whole
story- which is actually the prologue to the entire Book of Kings,
since our haftarah starts with chapter 1, verse 1. In this prologue to
the palace intrigue, the elderly King David is cold and weak, and his
advisers call for a young girl to lay with him to warm him:

“King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered
him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. His courtiers said to him,
‘Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, to wait upon Your
Majesty and be his attendant; and let her lie in your bosom, and my
lord the king will be warm.’ So they looked for a beautiful girl
throughout the territory of Israel. They found Abishag the Shunammite
and brought her to the king. The girl was exceedingly beautiful. She
became the king’s attendant and waited upon him; but the king was not
intimate with her.” (1 Kings 1:1-4)

What strikes me is not so much the contrast between this image of
David and early stories of his military and physical powers, but the
contrast between one’s expectations regarding how a family might care
for an elderly patriarch and the lonely man portrayed in these opening
verses. King David had wives, children, and grandchildren- surely one
of them could have stayed by his side to keep him warm? Where is
David’s family when the stranger is called in to lie down with him?
The scene recalls David’s taking of Bathsheva, in that a beautiful
woman is regarded as little more than an object for the King’s
service, yet in this case, it’s not about sex- it’s about an intimate
act of caregiving, now given to strangers.

I read this short passage as emotional background for what follows: a
family divided over power, legacy, and privilege. Perhaps the prologue
shows us that a man who has lived his life exercising power over
others has little hope of being cared for by his loved ones when his
efficacy wanes. David’s power was in his body, his courage, his
cunning, his charisma, his daring, and his strength. Yet when power
fades, love remains, but only if it is planted by countless small acts
over a lifetime.

It seems to me that David’s family, squabbling over the succession,
is doing what their father taught them to do by his example, rather
than doing what he most needs at the end of his life. Thus our
haftarah poses not only a contrast with Avraham, but a challenge to
the rest of us: how shall we live such that peace follows our passing?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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