Parashat VaYechi, 2 January 2021

Texts and beliefs By Nahum Gordon 21st Dec 2020


The usual explanation for the connection between this week’s parashah and the haftarah is that two notable figures in our tradition are about to die. You might think that, on their deathbeds, they would want to depart this world with reconciliation in their hearts and on their lips, but our personalities have other ideas. They desperately need to get some things off their chests. What really links Jacob and David in these stories is their penchant for harbouring grudges.

Jacob exacts his retribution overtly by cursing the behaviour of his three oldest sons in front of their male siblings. Nothing like some stinging rebukes and some public humiliation to engender familial harmony. Jacob’s agenda is to clear a path for two of his younger sons, Judah (4thin line) and Joseph (11thin line),to lead the tribes. He expends 54 words on his three disappointments, 78 words on seven nonentities(including Benjamin who does not utter a word in the Book of Bereishit) and 116 words on his two stars. His vision will be realised by Caleb (Judah) and Joshua (Ephraim)-the only men who survive the 40-year sojourn in theSinai wilderness and enter Canaan-but the dream will be dashed by the insensitivity of Rehoboam (Judah) towards his people over taxes and the insecurity of his counterpart Jeroboam (Ephraim) who creates shrines at Dan and Bethel to entice his subjects not to make pilgrimages to “Rehoboam’s” Temple .The institution which the people had hoped would unite aloose federation of tribes will endure for a mere 100 years.

David also has a long memory. He has stored up long-simmering resentments and they can only be assuaged if his successor, Solomon, acts “wisely”, i.e., cunningly, and dispatches two people, Joab and Shimei, to their graves.David allocates the same number of words (43) to each of them and devotes just over half of his entire speech to their demise. Given the delicacy of the situation, I assume that David instructed his son covertly.

Joab was a nephew of David and had commanded his army. The haftarah seems to refer to three crimes that he committed. The first, chronologically, was the murder of Abner, Saul’s commander, supposedly in revenge for Abner having reluctantly killed Joab’s youngest brother in self-defence. Abner had played a crucial part in persuading the 10 tribes to accept David as king after Saul had been killed by the Philistines.The second murder is merely hinted at, when David says, “you know what Joab…did to me.” If I am right, he is referring to the death of his favourite son, Absalom, who had instigated a coup against him. Notwithstanding, David had given specific instructions that Absalom be dealt with “gently.” Joab assessed, probably correctly, that Absalom would always be a threat to David’s hold on the throne and disregarded his monarch’s wishes. The third murder was that of Amasa, another of David’s nephews, who had led Absalom’s army in the civil war and who David had appointed as his Supreme Commander after Joab had justified why he had executed Absalom. Joab’s behaviour was not altruistic. Maybe he genuinely wanted to protect David, God’s Anointed, but he thought that only he could perform that sacred task properly. His top priority was disposing of anyone whom he gauged as posing a challenge to his supremacy over the armed forces. Unlike his king, Joab had no qualms about doing his own dirty work.

Shimei’s “crime”was to curse David as he fled Jerusalem to avoid being put to death by Absalom. Shimei was a member of Saul’s family who resented, understandably and with some justification, the ascent of the House of David and Judah at the expense of the House of Saul and Benjamin. When David returned from exile, after Absalom’s death, Shimei rushed to the Jordan to beg David’s forgiveness and was pardoned. But David never forgot the insult. He had made a vow but that did not tie his son’s hands.

However, there is a more profound connection between our two protagonists. Both presided over disjointed families and both had no one to blame but themselves.

Jacob only had time and love for Rachel and her two boys. Favouritism was the principal culprit for the disintegration of this family. No wonder the other sons deceived Jacob so cruelly over Joseph’s disappearance. When Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, his firstborn, Reuben, reminded Jacob, albeit in a crass and disrespectful manner, that Leah, mother to Reuben and Jacob’s first wife, was very much alive. That unsubtle message was lost on Jacob. When Simeon and Levi, the second and third to be born, rescued their sister, Dinah, from the clutches of a Canaanite prince, they were shocked and incensed that their father did not show any concern for his daughter, presumably because she was Leah’s child. Jacob could only focus on how they had conducted the mission –murdering all the men of Shechem –and how it might have repercussions for him. Without excusing their violence, which might seem at first glance to be a trifle excessive, their strategy was undoubtedly pragmatic as they ensured that there could never be any reprisals or the remotest chance of Dinah’s recapture.

And what of David’s family? After his adultery with Batsheva and the subsequent murder of her husband, Uriah, to conceal the scandal of an extra-marital pregnancy, David’s family falls apart in accordance with God’s decree. His virginal daughter Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. David is angry but takes no action against his oldest son. Why? We are not told if David ever went to console his daughter. Tamar takes refuge in the house of her full-brother, Absalom, who bides his time and two years later arranges for Amnon to be killed. Clearly, honour killings did not originate in Italy. Absalom is not apprehended for the murder but is banished. Joab knows how much David loves this son and through sheer persistence has Absalom restored to the royal court. Unfortunately, Absalom has deceived his father and first cousin. He exploits his father’s blind spot and launches a full-scale revolt from Hebron, his father’s first capital. Even the tribe of Judah betrays David. The text does not explain Absalom’s motivation, but it is likely that he never forgave his father for not punishing Amnon. David’s favouritism almost proves to be his undoing, but Joab rectifies his own error of judgement regarding Absalom. He does what David could never do.

I conclude with three observations. I do not think that any irony was intended, but David commences his speech to Solomon by exhorting him and his descendants to keep all of God’s laws with all their heart and all their soul, which surely must be a reference to the Shema. How much moral guidance Jacob and David received from God is open to question, but we have no such excuse. I refer you to one of the most famous verses in the Torah: “You will not take revenge on, or bear a grudge against, the members of your people; you will love your fellow [Israelite]as yourself. I am YHVH” [Lev.19:18].

Further unintentional irony is introduced by the author of 1 Chronicles22:8who records David telling Solomon why God would not allow him to build the Temple: “…you will not build a House in My Name because you have shed (literally, poured) much blood to the ground before Me.”As a man of violence, David is disqualified. As a man of “peace”, Solomon (from the Hebrew, shalom) is eligible.Before a brick has been laid,Solomon will have ordered the executions of Joab, Shimei and his royal half-brother, Adonijah.

Finally, it is remarkable how the Tenach is so frank about its principal players. Be they patriarchs or matriarchs, the firstborn or the youngest, founders of tribes, prophets, judges, priests or kings, their frailties are exposed mercilessly. They are human and therefore, by definition, they are imperfect. That is where consulting the halacha can help, if you want to change. Jacob and David preferred to remain intransigent, even on their deathbeds.

Nahum Gordon

Member of Kol Nefesh and founder of Torah Chat

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