Shemini/ Machar Hodesh: The True Victory

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger


Torah Portioni: Shemini / Machar Hodesh 

Good afternoon! 

My apologies for no commentary last week- the short week got the best of me. No commentary next week, either, as I’ll be off to California for a memorial service. 

This week, however, we will depart from the ordinary Torah reading (portionShemini) to look at the haftarah, or reading from the prophetic texts, which occurs when Shabbat is the day before Rosh Hodeshor the new moon. When that happens, we read a passage from the book of Samuel which tells of the developing conflict between Saul, the first king of a united kingdom of Israel, and his younger rival David, who has exceeded him in charisma and military renown. Caught in the middle is Jonathan, the king’s son and David’s best friend. 

The connection with the day before Rosh Hodesh occurs in the first line of ourhaftarah

“Jonathan said to him, ‘Tomorrow will be the new moon; and you will be missed when your seat remains vacant . . . ‘ ” (I Samuel 20:18). 

Jonathan knows that Saul is jealous of David to the point of wanting to harm him, and is telling David that he must go and hide while Jonathan ascertains whether it will be safe to join the king at the feast of the new moon. Jonathan tries to reason with his father, and fails; Saul and David have a deadly falling-out. Not only that, but Jonathan earns the enmity and scorn of his father, and ends up losing the kingship to David and dying in the ensuing civil war. 

One might see Jonathan as a failed and tragic figure, but Hirsch sees him as a great hero, not because of his accomplishments on the battlefield- substantial as they were- but because of his integrity and nobility of character. Though it cost him the throne, he protested his father’s treatment of David and helped David escape Saul’s wrath; who among us is really prepared to do that for a friend? 

Thus, according to Hirsch, Jonathan was not defeated at all in the task of being a “pure human being.” He did not succeed in his practical aims- reconciling his father and friend- but he succeeded in navigating treacherous shoals of power, privilege, family, and friendship while retaining his integrity, humanity, heart and soul. His story evokes a reevaluation of what it means to live a worthy life; too often we praise others only for worldly success and pay no mind to the spiritual costs. 

Every day, I see Jonathans in our community: humble people who serve others selflessly, who are more interested in what they can give than what they can get, who do what’s right regardless of personal cost. It is Jonathan, and not David, who is the moral center of this haftarah; to read his story is to look within and ask ourselves whether we too might act so nobly when tested to the core. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 
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