Machar Hodesh: True Friendship

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Machar Hodesh

Spring is springing along: the month of Iyyar is coming to a close, and on Sunday we begin the new month of Sivan. That confluence of calendrical celebrations [Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, coming the day after Shabbat] gives us a special haftarah for the week. Called “Machar Hodesh,” this special haftarah takes the place of the regular reading when Rosh Hodesh- the new moon- is on a Sunday; the reading itself is a story which begins on the day before the new moon.

This story is that of David (not yet King David) and Yehonatan [Jonathan], the son of King Shaul [Saul]. Shaul is jealous of David and seeks to harm him, but Yehonatan and David, who are dear friends, make a plan for Yehonatan to warn David if it’s not safe for him to
return to the king’s palace for the festival of the new moon. The plan is a clever one in which Yehonatan goes out to shoot some arrows and David will know by where they fall if Yehonatan is telling him to return or stay away.

Many commentators have praised Yehonatan as one of the nobler figures in the Bible; he is loyal to David even though he knows that David will probably supplant him as king. He endures his father’s rage and scorn rather than turn against his friend; he is an exemplar of conscience and commitment even if it costs him the kingdom. To me,
Yehonatan’s character is revealed in a subtle but symbolic act, which takes place after he goes out to communicate with the hidden David by means of the archery trick:

“So Jonathan’s boy gathered the arrows and came back to his master. — The boy suspected nothing; only Jonathan and David knew the arrangement. — Jonathan handed the gear to his boy and told him, ‘Take these back to the town.’ When the boy got there, David emerged from his concealment . . . ” ( 1 Samuel 28:38-41, JPS translation.)

Notice that after Yehonatan shoots his arrows into the field, and thus sends David a coded message, he gives his bow to his servant and sends him home. A bow is a weapon of war, but Yehonatan uses it for friendship, and then leaves it aside entirely when it comes time to meet David again. Yehonatan approaches his friend without any
defenses, as it were; contrast this with Shaul, who earlier in the text brings his spear to the palace feast and tries to strike his own son with it!

I see this small detail- Yehonatan’s sending the bow and arrows back with the boy before he meets David- as a symbol of why he is so admirable: he chooses to be vulnerable for the sake of those he loves. He chooses to risk his father’s wrath to protect David, and he
chooses to be a friend without the trappings of rank or royalty. By sending the boy home with the arrows, Yehonatan says to David: I wish to be your friend without the defenses and postures of warriors and princes.

This, then, is the message of Machar Hodesh: there are times when we must lay down our arms, as it were, to truly encounter those we love. We must risk relationship, because the love of friends is worth a kingdom.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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