Wednesday, November 7, 2007

From Chayei Sarah to Toledot - Three Women

Haftarot (readings from the Prophets) are paired with parshiyot (weekly Torah readings) to raise up themes and issues by way of inter-textual resonance. The prophetic messages amplify or comment upon the substance of the Torah-readings, either directly or by implication.

So it is shocking, at first, to see the biblical story that is paired by our tradition with the Torah’s narrative of Rebekah’s bethrothal to Isaac.

When King David was old and well advanced in years, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his servants said to him, "Let us look for a young virgin to attend the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm." Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful girl and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The girl was very beautiful… (I Kings 1:1-3)

Let us recall the way in which Rebekah was discovered, and the criteria by which Abraham’s servant set out to find her. “See, I am standing beside this spring,” says the servant in his prayer, “and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a maiden, 'Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,' and she says, 'Drink, and I will water your camels too'-let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” (Genesis 24:13-14)

The issues are care and action. Rebekah is chosen by her deeds.

By comparison, the hunt for Avishag is almost pornographic. Avishag’s personality is not at issue, and neither are her actions. The only criteria are virginity, physical beauty, and radiating heat in bed. What is going on here? Is it possible that our tradition is suggesting, This equals that, with regard to the stories of Rebekah and Avishag?

Our answer comes in the person of another woman, Bat Sheva, a wife of David's youthful days. Bat Sheva's actions, in the haftarah of Chayei Sarah, point toward the subsequent parashah, Toledot, and its topic of succession. It is Bat Sheva, in the story of this haftarah, whose deeds resonate with those of the ancestress Rebekah. Just as Rebekah, in parashat Toledot, determines that Jacob and not Esau will receive Isaac’s principle blessing and continue his line, Bat Sheva, in this haftarah of Chayei Sarah, determines which of David’s sons will inherit after the king:

Bath Sheva went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him. Bat Sheva bowed low and knelt before the king. "What is it you want?" the king asked. She said to him, "My lord, you yourself swore to me your servant by the Lord your God: 'Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne.' But now Adonijah has become king, and you, my lord the king, do not know about it. (I Kings 1:15-17)

The scene in David’s room is not just a fateful moment, but a horrible one, from Bat Sheva’s perspective. We must imagine Bat Sheva, coming to plead the case of her son, Solomon, and having to do so, as the text says, with beautiful young Avishag right there in her husband’s bedchamber. Even in a context of polygamy, and even though we are told that David never consummated sexual relations with Avishag, this cannot have been a pleasant moment for the aging queen. She comes to remind David of the promises he made to her in her youth, and all the while she must face the sight of David’s latest youthful female acquisition. We may imagine that Bat Sheva might well have had in mind the way she herself was first found and posessed by King David:

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, Isn't this Bat Sheva...? (II Samuel 11:2-3)

Bat Sheva and Avishag start out with David in much the same way, as a beautiful objects of desire, as playthings to be acquired. Yet Bat Sheva manages to transit, in her actions, from one pole of possibility to another – from the actionless paradigm of Avishag to the ancestral paradigm of Rebekah. Bat Sheva refuses to accept being put aside and forgotten, along with David’s promises to her, as the next pretty young girl takes her place in the king’s bed. It is as though Bat Sheva were reminding David, I am your partner in this story of Israel, a woman whose voice, like Rebekah’s, will be heard.

Avishag never manages to transcend her position as a chattel. Even after David’s death she remains a passive pawn, a baggage sought by the players jockeying for position in the wake of the great king. Avishag remains a cipher for the prospect of woman as object, without voice or consequential action in a world ruled by men.

At the very moment in which we are introduced to Rebekah, our tradition signals to us that she will not be an inconsequential object. Without waiting the week from Chayei Sarah to Toledot, from the Life of Sarah to the subsequent Generations, the haftarah reminds us, as well, who it is that will act to ensure that these, in particular, will be our toledot, that this will be our heritage.

1 comment:

Nem said...

Very nice! I had noticed the similarity between the "aquisitions" of Bat Sheva and Avishag. Thank you for pointing out the striking difference in Bat Sheva's actions, that assert her personhood in the face of objectification.