Chayei Sarah: Comfort and Conscience

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. (1 Kings 1:1)


I have been on commentary hiatus too long and I hope to be back more consistently. The portion Chayei Sarah is a good one for jumping back into the waters, as the narrative is rich with opportunities for reflection and application. The Torah portion is mostly the story of Avraham sending his servant to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzhak, in order to secure a more proper heir and thus a legacy. These themes continue in the haftarah, which begins as King David is an old man, shivering in his bed. King David, like Avraham, has to secure his heir and legacy before he dies.

We’ll leave a full compare-and-contrast of the two stories for another year and just focus on the first verse of the haftarah, quoted above. This verse seems simple enough but elicits some interesting commentary. One view from the medieval scholars is straightforward: the verse mentions blankets being insufficient because blankets can’t warm by themselves, they can only ward off the cold air. So if the king is not generating his own warmth, the blankets aren’t enough. Rashi, on the other hand, quotes an older midrash from the Talmud to draw a moral lesson about conscience and its consequences:

Rashi: he never felt warm– Our Rabbis said, “All who scorn clothing do not benefit from them in the end (Berakhot 62b 30-31)”- because he ripped of the corner of Saul’s coat [he could not become warm through clothes]. And in the Midrash Aggadah [it says]: Rav Shmuel the son of Nakhmani said, “When David saw the angel standing in Jerusalem with his sword in hand, his blood went cold from fear (See Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 43)”. (Translation from Sefaria.)

Rashi brings two different commentaries here, but they work together. In the second comment, Rashi seems to be saying that when a person sees death, or perhaps mortal danger, the blood runs cold from fear. The implication, as I understand it, is that David knows that his time is short and is cold from the fear or vision of impending death. Now, one could say that David was a brave warrior, who fought the giant with only a slingshot, and thus death should not scare him. Yet as a warrior he could have confidence in his own abilities and convince himself that he could defeat his enemy, but not even a king can defeat time and mortality.

What about Rashi’s first comment? This hearkens back to the struggle between David and Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul pursued David and his men, but when Saul went into a cave in which David was hiding, David sneaked up on him and cut off the corner of his garment as a way of proving to Saul that he could have killed him- but didn’t, and thus was not truly an enemy. (See here for full text.) Rashi quotes the Talmud to the effect that because David treated “clothing”- that is, Saul’s robe- with contempt, in the end “clothing”- that is, the bedclothes- could not avail him.

Well, OK, but David only cut the corner of Saul’s robe in order not to hurt him- surely it was better to cut the robe than to cut a person! So some rabbis say it was Saul’s tzitzit or ritual fringes that David cut, and thus he despoiled a holy garment, which in turn leads to his inability to enjoy warm garments in old age. In this reading, David’s sin was taking something holy- the fringes on the corner of Saul’s robe- and treating them with disrespect in order to make a rhetorical or political point in his dispute with Saul.

That’s a powerful image for this day and age, when so many of our shared values and symbols are mere objects in our partisan battles.  Another way we can understand Rashi’s two comments is contrasting the satisfaction of material goods versus the inherent good of a unburdened conscience. Think about it this way: David achieved power, fame, glory, riches and status, but at the end of his days, it was not material wealth- the blankets- that could comfort him. In fact, they left him cold, perhaps because he knew, on a deep level, that his riches were achieved at least partially by defeating and dethroning Saul, his mentor and father-in-law, in the first of David’s many wars. Thus Rashi’s two comments work together: David was cold from his vision of impending death and unable to derive “warmth,” or comfort, from his riches because he understood the moral cost of obtaining them.

Framed this way, I think Rashi’s comments show David’s chill as a cautionary tale, especially because the chapters that follow will show David’s family torn apart (not for the first time) by a struggle over those very same riches and power that bring David no warmth on his deathbed.

For us, the question becomes: how shall I live now such that I can someday die with peace of mind, sustained and warmed by love? What conflicts or hardness of heart can I now repair so I can live with myself until the end of my days? This is difficult, no doubt, but is there anything more important?


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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