Archive for Shabbat Machar Hodesh

Machar Hodesh: Blind Anger

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot/ Machar Hodesh

At that, Shaul threw his spear at him to strike him down; and Yehonatan realized that his father was determined to do away with David. (1 Samuel 20:33)

Good afternoon!

Well, this is unusual, but we’re going to mention King (well, not yet king) David two weeks in a row. That’s because this Shabbat we read the special haftarah called Machar Hodesh, meaning “tomorrow is the new moon,” which read when Shabbat is in fact the day before the new moon, or Rosh Hodesh. The haftarah begins its narrative on the day before the new moon, so there is a calendrical connection to the Shabbat rather than a thematic connection to the Torah portion.

I’ve written about Machar Hodesh a few times before (see here) but the brief recap is that Shaul is the king of Israel, Yehonatan is his son, David is a threat to Saul’s throne, and Yehonatan, David’s best friend, is caught in the middle. (So is Michal, Saul’s daughter, Yehonatan’s sister and David’s wife, but she’s not mentioned in the haftarah.) The haftarah tells the story of David escaping Saul’s jealous rage by leaving the court before the feast of the new moon, and Yehonatan’s attempt to ascertain whether it was safe for him to return and warn David if it wasn’t.

The verse above is taken from a scene at the feast at the palace after Shaul notices David’s absence and rages at his son for allowing David to leave, pointing out that David threatens Yehonatan’s future kingship as well. (Verse 31) Yet two verses later Shaul throws his spear at his very own son in anger! This make no sense: how can Shaul risk injuring, or even killing, his son if the reason he is angry is because he thinks Yehonatan is at risk of David usurping or killing him?

Now, we might say that Shaul didn’t strike his son with the pointed end of the spear, but only whacked him with the flat side, or threw it in the direction of Yehonatan but not right at him. Just a warning, perhaps? Well, maybe, but Shaul has already tried to kill David twice with the same spear, so it it seems that he’s using it dangerously. (See 18:11 and 19:10.)

This makes no sense, logically- why risk killing your son over his supposed inability to see his risk of being killed?. Maybe that’s the point: anger, rage, jealousy and other overwhelming emotions blind us to our true goals and often consume what we think we’re protecting. (See: Politics, American.) Lashing out in anger is by definition a reaction rather than a thoughtful action that arises out of one’s ideals, values or vision.

Rage destroys; it cannot fix. This is why Shaul is such a tragic but utterly human character: like most of us, the greatest challenge was not defeating an external enemy but mastering himself. The rabbis ask: who is mighty? They answer: The one who conquers his own inclinations. This is as true for kings as it is for you and me.

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

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Shabbat Machar Hodesh: Love is Infinite

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Machar Hodesh

Saul flew into a rage against Jonathan. “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!” he shouted. “I know that you side with the son of Jesse-to your shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness! (1 Samuel 20:30)

Good afternoon!

This week we’re reading an unusual haftarah, called Machar Hodesh, which is only read when Sunday is Rosh Hodesh, or the first of the month, based on a mention in the text of the following day’s new moon. This happens on an irregular basis (as far as I know), which makes this haftarah an unusual liturgical text, since most Torah readings or special prayers happen on certain days or times of the year and shape our experience of the flow of time and turning of the seasons.

The text of the haftarah concerns the relationship between David, future king of Israel, and Jonathan, his best friend, brother-in-law and son of the current king, Saul, who is jealous of David’s popularity and seeks to kill him. Jonathan is caught in the middle, and tries, in this text, to save David’s life by finding out if Saul still wants him dead, in which case David will flee the royal court. Saul figures out that his son is covering for David’s absence at the feast of the new moon and flies into a rage, insulting and shaming Jonathan for seeming to choose his friend over his father. In the verse quoted above, Saul is so contemptuous that he doesn’t even refer to David by name, but calls him “son of Jesse” and even implies that Jonathan is unworthy of his status as crown prince.

To be clear, there is a strong political component to Saul’s anger: he worries that David will seize the kingship, and if Jonathan is helping David, then Jonathan may be undermining his own claim to the throne. On the other hand, it’s hard not to read the verse above and feel pity for Saul’s jealousy and insecurity; on a purely emotional level, Saul falls into the classic human error of assuming that people are with us or against us, loved ones or enemies.

Yet love is not like that at all: politically, perhaps Jonathan would have to choose to support either his father or his friend as king, but spiritually, he can love and support both. Love is not a zero-sum game: loving one person doesn’t mean loving another any less. It takes maturity and courage to accept that our family, friends, colleagues and dear ones are not our exclusive possessions. To the extend that we recognize and affirm that love is an infinite resource, there is more of it in the world, and for what other purpose were we created?

Shabbat Shalom,


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

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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, 


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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,


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