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WHAT IS THE SECRET OF OUR IMMORTALITY?

Friday, 10 November, 2017 - 11:33 am

Debbie, refusing to give in to looking old, bought a new line of expensive cosmetics guaranteed to make her look years younger.

After a lengthy session before the mirror applying the "miracle" products, she asked her husband Jerry, "Darling, honestly, if you didn't know me, how old would you say I am?"

Looking her over carefully, Jerry replied, "Judging from your skin, 20; your hair, 18; your cheeks, 20; your hands, 15; your eyes, 30; your stature, 35."

"Oh, you flatterer!" she began to gush, when Jerry suddenly interrupted her—

"Hold on there, sweetie! I haven't added them up!"

The name of this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, means the Life of Sarah. However, only the first verse talks of Sarah living, and even that as a summation of her life: “And the life of Sarah was 127 years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah." The portion goes on to chronicle her death, the negotiations for the purchase of her burial plot in Hebron, her burial, and the marriage of her son Isaac to Rebecca who replaced Sarah as the new Matriarch of the Hebrew tribe.

How is this to be reconciled with the concept that the name of a Torah portion expresses its essential theme and message? Ostensibly, the events of Sarah emphasize that fact that Sarah is no more!

This may be understood by analyzing a strange moment in the story recorded in this week's Haftorah, the opening chapter of the Book of Kings.

This is the story of the Jews from the time of King Solomon’s reign until well into the division of the Jewish Kingdom, and the exile of the Northern Kingdom. It follows the Book of Samuel, and its account of the beginning of monarchy in the Land of Israel, of King Saul, and later the ascension and rule of King David. As such, the opening provides a link between these two periods, when thoughts must turn to David’s succession: "And King David came into his old age, and they covered him with clothes, but he was not warmed."

King David, no doubt one of the most vivacious and passionate of the Biblical personalities, has finally slowed down and grown old. The ravages of time and age have even taken on David, and the once dynamic leader seems reduced to passivity.

King David’s son Adoniya, from his wife Chagit, is the brother of Absalom, David’s oldest, most charismatic son who tried to lead a rebellion against his father and was ultimately killed in the process. Now Adoniya, handsome and striking, believes the throne belongs to him. He decides to take a similarly proactive approach to succession.

Adoniya declares himself to be the future king, and moves to cement his claim. He forms a personal guard, complete with chariots, horsemen, and 50 servants to run before him. Meanwhile, he begins to test the waters in the royal court, where he attempts to garner support for his bid for the throne. Aviatar, a prominent member of the priesthood, offers his loyalty. And, in an enormous coup for the young Adoniya, so does Yoav, David’s nephew and long-time military commander. (They are both upset at David and feel that under Adoniya they will retain their full power). They form the nucleus of his royal campaign. There are still a few notable loyalist holdouts, like the High Priest Tzadok, the prophets Nathan and Shimi, and the royal guard, but Adoniya’s campaign quickly takes on a life of its own.

Adoniya decides to go public and take his royal candidacy to the people. By bringing his contention for the throne into the open, he could begin to gather the popular support he would need to become king, and preempt, or even intimidate any potential opponents. He prepares an enormous feast, slaughters many fattened animals to serve, and invites all of his supporters, as well as his brothers—and potential rivals—for the throne. The king’s loyalists are not invited. The king himself is oblivious to the feast altogether.

But there is one major problem, apart from the fact that King David still has not actually passed on: The kingship has already been promised to someone else. Years earlier, the prophet Nathan declared that the future of the monarchy would go to Solomon. David promised his wife Bathsheba that her son Solomon would inherit him as king.

Nathan understands that once Adoniya seizes the throne, there is a very real risk that he will purge the royal court of any potential rivals. Bathsheba and Solomon’s lives are in danger. The time has come to remind David of his promise.

Once Nathan informs Bathsheba of what is more or less a coup, and of the grave threat she is under, they formulate a plan of action: First, Bathsheba enters the king’s chamber to make her case. Then Nathan enters and tells him about Adoniya's coup.

And Bathsheba went in to the king into the chamber: And Bathsheba bowed, and prostrated before the king. And the king said, What have you? And she said to him, My lord, you swore by the Lord your G-d to your handmaid, saying, Assuredly Solomon your son shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon my throne.

And now, behold, Adoniya reigns; and now, my lord the king, you don ’t know it….

And, lo, while she yet talked with the king, Nathan the prophet also came in…

And Nathan said, My lord, O king, have you said, Adoniya shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon my throne?...

Is this thing done by my lord the king, and you have not showed it to your servant, who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?

Finally, after these courtroom-worthy speeches by Bathsheba and Nathan, the old king finally responds: Then king David answered and said, Call me Bathsheba. And she came into the king's presence, and stood before the king.

And the king swore, and said, As I have sworn to you by the Lord G-d of Israel, saying, Solomon your son will reign after me, and he will sit upon my throne in my stead; so will I do this day.

Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the earth, and said: May my master king David live forever.

And so it was. The appropriate steps were made to establish Solomon’s rightful claim to the throne, and as word of King David’s decision reached Adoniya’s banquet, Adoniya himself quickly surrendered his claim, and for his loyalty, Solomon promised not to touch a hair on his head.

What seems somewhat strange and manipulative is Bathsheba's pronouncement once King David has assured her that Solomon will succeed him: May my master lord king David live forever!

Does she really mean that? After all her fears about Adoniya, and her desperate, elaborate bid to secure the throne for her son, does she really feel that way? Everything she has done up until now gives obvious lie to this sentiment. If she really thinks David might live forever, or even has many years ahead of him, why is she so urgently maneuvering her son to take his place? She could have said: May the king live. Why add “forever” when she just asked David to prepare for his own demise?!

Moreover, just a few lines later, Solomon is anointed and officially approved for succession while David is still alive:

And Tzadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tabernacle and anointed Solomon, and they blew the horn, and all the people said, "Long live king Solomon."

This seems cynical. She prays that David live forever; then moments later she has the people declare Solomon as the new king! Et tu, Brute?

There is a subtle but clear message here. Bathsheba was not flattering or manipulating at all. She was telling her husband something very powerful: Once you declare Solomon to be the next king, you ensure that you will live on even after your passing.

Solomon was the child who most embodied the values, ideals and virtues of his father David. Thus, the leadership of Solomon would essentially be nothing more than the perpetuation of his father David.

When the people declared “Long live Solomon the king,” this was not a contradiction of Bathsheba's proclamation: “Let my master King David live forever!” It was one and the same. Solomon saw himself as an extension of David. When Solomon became king, he prayed to G-d that he would merit to follow David's path. In the life of Solomon, David would live too.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Woody Allen said, "Someone once asked if my dream was to live on, after I die, in the hearts of people, and I said I would prefer to live on in my own apartment."

That would be nice, but we can’t ensure that, Woody. Bathsheba knew that David may not live on in his own apartment, but he would live on as long as the Jewish flame lives on. Indeed, until today, we declare in our prayers and songs: “David the king of Israel lives on!” Bathsheba's words were fulfilled. When a Jew takes out a book of Psalms composed by King David and pours his heart out to G-d, David lives on. When a Jew lives like a royal king, with Jewish pride and dignity, knowing he is a Divine prince, David lives on.

Leo Tolstoy famously called the Jewish people, “the embodiment of eternity.” Many great thinkers and writers, from Mark Twain to Blaise Pascal, have marveled at the Jewish people’s extraordinary longevity, and wondered what its secret is. The Jewish people have always known that the secret to our immortality lies with our children, specifically with the transmission of our values and practices to the next generation.

That is why the name of this portion is “the life of Sarah,” though it is focused on events after her demise. Together with Abraham, Sarah pioneered the Jewish settlement of the Land of Canaan, and as described in the opening chapter of Chayei Sarah, her burial in the Cave of Machpeilah achieved the first actual Jewish ownership of a piece of land in the Holy Land. Sarah devoted her life to the creation of the first Jewish family, and the story of Rebecca's selection demonstrates how Sarah's successor embodied the ideals upon which Sarah founded the Jewish home.

There is something each of us can implant in the souls of those we have influence on. That lives on.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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