> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Death of a King

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn


This week's parsha describes Avraham in his advanced years; he is old, but blessed:

And Avraham was old and advanced in years; and God blessed Avraham in every way. (Bereishit 24:1)

The portion from the Prophets read in conjunction with this parsha (the Haftorah) has a very different opening description of the elderly King David:

And King David was old and advanced in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he was not warmed. (I Kings, Chapter 1:1)

While the first words of each of these verses are almost identical (the only difference being the description of David as "king"), the similarity seems to end right there. Avraham is described as blessed in every way, despite his advanced years, while David's 'golden years' seem far less idyllic. David is depicted as an elderly monarch whose body has rebelled against him; even simple body warmth eludes him.

* * *


David is old and cold, and a beautiful young woman named Avishag the Shunamite is brought to attend to him and keep him warm. She is described as a virgin, and the text attests that David was not intimate with her. Many of the details here are unclear: This seems like a very strange modus operandi to bring heat. Additionally, why was Avishag's physical beauty a factor? The commentaries address these and other problems in their search for a deeper understanding of the causes of King David's chill and the method used to dispel it.

The Sefer Haliqutim (1) contrasts the ailments of David's old age with the later years of Avraham's life, raising some of the questions we have already noted. He then suggests that this was all part of a process of repentance that David needed to go through. It is more than ironic that David, who at one point in his life could have been accused of being too "hot blooded," now suffers from a sort of cold that proves incurable. In his younger days, David took many wives; now a beautiful virgin lies next to him, yet he has no sexual contact with her. The Sefer Haliqutim links all this to an earlier episode in David's biography: David had set his eyes on another man's wife, a woman whom he eventually married. In his later years, David experiences a chill which comes from within; the warm young woman brought to rekindle his own burning desire, remains untouched. She is part of his rehabilitation.(2)

The Talmud addresses the questionable episode that lies behind this discussion, and raises several technical points to explain David's actions and exonerate him from guilt. Rather than accusing David of adultery, the Talmud's conclusion is:

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Yonatan's name: Whoever says (3) that David sinned is patently mistaken, for it is said, 'And David conducted himself wisely in all his ways: and God was with him.' Is it possible that sin came to his hand, yet the Divine Presence was with him? (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 56a)

The Talmud seems to take the long view, to consider the sum total of David's life. Nonetheless, even those sages who defend David's innocence do so by citing legalisms and technicalities. Clearly, the entire episode of David's marriage to Batsheva involves moral grey areas, or, at the very least, the perception of immorality. In fact, the Prophet Natan lambasts David for his behavior:

And God sent Natan to David. And he came to him, and said to him, 'There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up; and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it ate of his own food, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was to him as a daughter. And there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take from his own flock and of his own herd, to prepare for the traveler who came to him; but took the poor man's lamb, and prepared it for the man who came to him.' And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Natan, 'As God lives, the man who has done this thing shall surely die; And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.' And Natan said to David, 'You are the man. Thus said the Almighty God of Israel, "I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Shaul; And I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives to your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Yehuda; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given to you many other things. Why have you despised the commandment of God, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. And therefore the sword shall never depart from your house; because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife." Thus said God, "Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own house, and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of the sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.' And David said to Natan, 'I have sinned against God.' (II Shmuel 12:1-13)

According to the Sefer Liquitim, as David lies beside a young, beautiful woman, his physical passions are suppressed and his soul reigns supreme, allowing him to fully repent for his earlier moral lapse.

* * *


The main thrust of the Haftorah is the insurgence of Adoniya, who attempts to usurp the kingdom while David is old but still quite alive.

Then Adoniyah the son of Haggit exalted himself, saying, 'I will be king'; and he set up chariots and horsemen for himself, and fifty men to run before him. And his father had not displeased him at any time by saying, 'Why have you done so? And he also was a very handsome man; and his mother bore him after Avsalom. (I Kings, Chapter 1:5-6)

The closing editorial comment, that Adoniyah was born after Avshalom, is instructive: (4) Like Adoniyah, Avshalom, too, had declared himself king. The memory of Avshalom's ill-conceived rebellion and tragic death must surely have haunted David and made him hesitant to give Adoniya the rebuke he deserved. He could not bear to confront his rebellious son - again.

The Sefer Liquitim casts David's woes against a different backdrop altogether: David himself had behaved inappropriately to a king - to Saul, and the various attempts at rebellion he was forced to contend with in his later years were punishment:

And the men of David said to him, 'This is the day of which God said to you, 'Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand, that you may do to him as you shall see fit.' Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Shaul's robe secretly. And it came to pass afterward, that David's heart struck him, because he had cut off Shaul's skirt. And he said to his men, 'God forbid that I should do this thing to my master, God's anointed one, to stretch forth my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed emissary of God. So David scolded his servants with these words, and did not allow them to rise against Shaul. And Shaul rose up from the cave, and went on his way. (I Shmuel 24:4-7)

The Talmud clarifies the connection between these two episodes: David's disrespect toward King Shaul was an act of rebellion against the symbolic expression of Shaul's status, his royal clothing. In his old age, this very same symbol betrays David: his clothing brings him no protection, no warmth.

"Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Shaul's robe secretly." R. Yose son of R. Hanina said: Whoever treats garments contemptuously will in the end derive no benefit from them; for it says, "Now King David was old and advanced in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he was not warmed." (Talmud Bavli Brachot 62b)

David's disrespect for the trappings of the monarchy rebounds against him, when his son Adoniya takes a page from David's book and outfits himself with an entourage and declares himself heir to the throne. As David supplanted Shaul, so Adoniya begins his "reign" while David still lives and occupies the throne.(5)

Adoniya was apparently fully aware of the power of the symbols of monarchy: Although his attempted rebellion fails and Shlomo eventually becomes king, Adoniya attempts to gain legitimacy by exploiting the very same symbols. He approaches Batsheva and asks to relay what he presents as an innocent request: He asks that Avishag the Shunamite, the beautiful young woman brought to warm his father, be given to him as a wife and "consolation prize."

And Adoniya, son of Haggit, came to Batsheva the mother of Shlomo. And she said, "Do you come in peace?" and he said, "Peace." And he said, "May I speak with you?" and she said, "Speak." And he said, "You are aware that the kingdom was mine and all of Israel looked to me to rule, and the kingdom was taken from me and went to my brother, for it was God's decision to give it to him. And now I have one request of you; do not turn me away." And she said to him, "Speak." And he said, "Please tell King Shlomo that he should not turn down your request and that he give me Avishag the Shunamite for a wife." (I Kings, 2:13-17)

Adoniya was very clever, his plan well-considered. He knew that he could never take one of King David's wives; this is clearly a symbol of succession and monarchy. Kings inherited the entire household of their predecessors, as did David himself. Instead, Adoniya attempts to step into the grey area. He asks for Avishag, who never had the status of a royal wife. Her position was far more utilitarian. Like the clothes with which David had been covered, Avishag was brought to the palace to warm him. King Shlomo, whose wisdom was legendary, saw through Adoniya's subterfuge. He understood full well that granting this woman to Adoniya as a wife would be tantamount to dressing his rebellious brother in the robes of the king. The plot comes full circle: David showed his disrespect for Shaul by defacing his royal garments; David's clothing rebelled against him, failing to provide warmth in his old age. Finally, David's son Adoniya tried to rebel by "inheriting" the stand-in for clothing, Avishag the Shunamite - a very powerful symbol of legitimacy indeed. Clearly, Adoniya had not abandoned his rebellious aspirations; he is put to death.(6)

This episode requires that we consider more carefully the meaning and significance of "clothing" as a concept. We recall that clothing was introduced only after Man sinned in the Garden of Eden; such coverage only became necessary when Man became vulnerable, weakened by sin. In fact, the word for 'clothing', begged, signifies b'gida, betrayal or rebellion; the very necessity for clothing is a sign of man's rebellion against God.

The catalyst and instigator of that sin in Eden was the Serpent. He was the first to cast his eyes upon a woman who was not his spouse, to desire another man's wife. While the Serpent may have been the first, he was most surely not the last: This behavior became the perceived privilege of many powerful men throughout history, most especially among rulers and kings. Rather than subjecting themselves to the will of the King of the Universe, they simply took what was not theirs. They felt that their status, the power which they amassed, was sufficient proof of the morality of their actions. In fact, this was the attitude that brought about the flood : (7)

And the sons of the rulers saw that the daughters of man were good, and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose. (Bereishit 6:2-3)

The flood did not put an end to this warped nexus of power and adultery: Avraham suffered repeatedly when confronted by this very same philosophy. His concerns regarding the intentions of the powerful men with whom he interacted were borne out on at least two occasions: Both Paroh and Avimelech regarded it as their right to take Sarah, for they were kings, and in their minds, women were for the taking.

Avraham's defense against these advances seems quite strange to modern readers:

Say, I beg you, that you are my sister; that it may be well with me for your sake; and my soul shall live because of you. (Bereishit 12:13)

Sarah is instructed to say that she is his sister. We are not alone in finding this strategy peculiar, to say the least: Numerous commentaries (8) take umbrage at Avraham's seeming willingness to save himself at the expense of his wife's wellbeing.(9) However, Avraham's tactic contains within it a deep understanding of the mindset of those with whom he is in conflict. His plan may actually be a statement aimed at and only fully understood by the morally corrupt monarchs themselves, in the broader context of their respective societal mores.

The Torah often holds Egypt up as the representative of morally corrupt social systems. In fact, when the Torah lists all of the forbidden sexual perversions, the section is introduced with a general prohibition to shun Egyptian practices and mores:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to the People of Israel, and say to them, 'I am the Almighty your God. Do not adopt the behaviors of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and do not adopt the behaviors of the land of Canaan, where I bring you, nor shall you walk in their ordinances. You shall do my judgments, and keep my ordinances, to walk with them; I am the Almighty your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments; which if a man does, he shall live in them; I am God. None of you shall approach to any who is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness; I am God. (Vayikra 18:1-6)

First and foremost among proscribed sexual behaviors is incest. Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) in his commentary Haamek Davar, stresses that the entire monarchial system of Egypt was based on incest: As a "privilege" of monarchy, the Pharaos married their own sisters.(10) It is in this milieu that Avraham is forced to maneuver. When he instructs Sarah to say that she is his sister, Avraham speaks to Paroh in his own language, as it were, addressing him as one monarch to another. He hopes that Paroh will treat him as a significant leader, and afford him the protection given to a visiting monarch.

In fact, this subtext may be the key to understanding more than the episode of Avraham and Sarah in Egypt; this may be the crux of the entire relationship of the Haftorah to the parsha. While we see Avraham as "avinu", our Forefather Avraham, that is our own familial, familiar perspective. To others, to the people with whom he came into contact during his later life, Avraham was seen as king. The text itself gives us many "snapshots" of Avraham's interactions that indicate this status: For example, when Avraham returned from the battle in which he vanquished the confederacy of five kings led by his old nemesis Nimrod/Amrafel,(11) there was a move to anoint Avraham king of the entire region:

And the King of Sodom went out to meet him after his return from the victory over Kedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, at the valley of Shaveh, which is the king's valley. (Bereishit 14:17)

R. Berekiah and R. Helbo in the name of R. Samuel b. Nahman said: It was so called because there all peoples of the world became unanimous, and said to Abraham: 'Be thou king over us.' But he replied: 'The world does not lack its King and its God. (Bereishit Rabbah 43:5)

Long before, Avraham had come to fully understand that the world has a King. He therefore had little use for the trappings of power and monarchy. In his experience, monarchs caused war, bloodshed and the corruption of morals. As far as he was concerned, the world had the only King it needed. In fact, Avraham's attitude is deeply embedded in the Jewish ethic: While Avraham was, according to the midrash, the first to express his reservations, (12) throughout the generations, the Jewish attitude toward monarchy has always been ambivalent.

These reservations notwithstanding, "outsiders" saw Avraham as a king, and he was often confronted with many of the issues with which kings are faced: waging war, accepting or rejecting payment or homage from peoples vanquished or rescued in war, economic management and trade, foreign relations - and succession. Here, then, is the connection between the parsha and the Haftorah: The Haftorah recounts a tale of palace intrigue surrounding the question of succession to the throne. Conversely, the parsha tells of the courtship of a wife for Avraham's son, Yitzchak - a strange courtship, conducted by proxy through Avraham's trusted aide. At face value, these are two very different stories, yet they are woven with a common thread: continuity. The new leader, the replacement for the father who is almost larger-than life, is the topic. The contrast in the resolution of the problem of succession is striking: Avraham's trusted servant marches with fidelity to fulfill his master's quest to procure a proper wife for Yitzchak, thus assuring that Avraham's line will carry on. On the other hand, David's son Adoniya takes steps to circumvent his father and become king, despite the fact that David is still alive, and has expressed his choice of Shlomo to inherit the throne.

Both King David and "king" Avraham led lives in which they built and solidified great empires, both physical and spiritual. Both were willing and able to fight, when necessary, but Avraham's preferred tactic was to reach out with love. His following grew as he exposed others to the hesed of the God of the Universe whom he had discovered. In our present parsha, and in the Haftorah reading associated with it, both Avraham and David were planning their respective departures from the stage of history, making provisions for the smooth transmission of their respective empires to their successors. It is therefore with a great deal of irony and no small measure of poetic justice that the Targum Pseudo-Yonatan identifies two of Avraham's better known disciples/followers, Eliezer and Hagar, within this context of monarchy and succession.

Eliezer, the man whom Avraham saw as a potential heir, was in a sense "the man who would be king," the man passed over in favor of Yitzchak. According to tradition, Avraham entrusts Eliezer with the task of finding a wife for Yitzchak, (13) effectively entrusting the displaced heir with insuring the succession of the true heir. The trust that Avraham places in him is all the more impressive in this light, and the servant's scrupulous fulfillment of his master's wishes all the more significant. And yet, that is not all; according to Targum Pseudo-Yonatan, Eliezer was in fact the son of Nimrod! (14) Here, then, is the son of Avraham's arch-enemy, the man who had tried to burn him alive in Ur Kasdim and to defeat him on the battlefield years later. Eliezer rejected his own father, turning his back on the empire that would rightfully be his own, in order to join Avraham. And when he is passed over by Avraham, when it is clear that Yitzchak will inherit the empire Avraham has built despite his own years of faithful service, Eliezer remains loyal to Avraham and everything he stands for. He faithfully seeks out the means for continuing Avraham's spiritual and physical legacy - through Yitzchak!

Hagar was the female equivalent of Eliezer, so to speak. She served Sarah, and for a time it appeared that her own son would inherit Avraham's empire. The Torah identifies her as Egyptian, and the Targum Pseudo- Yonatan fills in the details of her biography: she was the daughter of Pharaoh, the granddaughter of Nimrod.(15)

What did they see in Avraham? What led them to reject Nimrod and everything he stood for and cling to Avraham and his household? Avraham was a different kind of king. He did not take people by force; they followed him because of love. Nimrod was the first person in history described as a king; he amassed power in order to enable him to use force. Avraham taught the world about a different King, an ethical King of love. Nimrod's own descendents chose Avraham and his message of decency; in him, and through him, they had found a true leader and the real King.



1. Sefer Haliqutim Melachim 1:1.

2. Ibid.

3. It is possible to explain, that once David repented as is evidenced by scripture, he is considered a penitent, and it is deemed improper to remind a ba'al Teshuva of his past transgressions, hence we may not say "David sinned."

4. See II Shmuel, 3: 3-4.

5. See Sefer Haliqutim Melachim 1:1.

6. See Yalkut Shimoni, I Kings, chapter 1 remez 166.

7. For a discussion of this topic, see my article "In Search of the Serpent"

8. See Ramban Bereishit 12:10, I have previously written about this episode see my essay "Acts of the Fathers"

9. See Ohr Hachaim Bereshit 12:11,12 where he raises the same question as the Ramban and provides an answer.

10. See Hamek Davar Vayikra 18:3.

11. See Rashi Berishit 14:1 where Amraphel is identified with Nimrod.

12. See D'varim 17:14 and commentaries.

13. See for example Targum Pseudo Yonatan Bereishit 24:2.

14. See Targum Pseudo Yonatan Bereishit 14:14, this teaching is based on various Midrashim, see Midrash Aggada chapter 16, Yalkut Shimoni Chaya Sarah remez 109. Pirkei D'rebbi Eliezer chapter 16, says that Eliezer was Nimrod's slave. The Chizkuni Bereishit 15:2 identifies Eliezer as Nimrod's grandson.

15. Targum Pseudo Yonatan Bereishit 16:5.


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