Overview

Our Parshah tells the story of Jacob’s final moments in this world. He speaks to Joseph, blesses Joseph’s children, and then gathers his sons for them to hear his last words to them. In a similar vein, the haftarah describes the final words of another one of our greatest heroes: King David.

In this last command to his young son Solomon, the king begins with telling him to be strong and fear G‑d. Following the Torah and its mitzvot would bring him wisdom and success, and guarantee that G‑d would keep His promise to David that his descendants would forever be the kings among Israel.

After these general instructions, David leaves his son with some work to do. There were a number of things that David wanted to see happen, but which could be carried out only after his death. In the following paragraphs we will explain some of the background behind these various commands.

Joab ben Zeruiah

David’s first command to his son was to take retribution from Joab (Yoab) ben Zeruiah. Joab had on a number of occasions taken the law into his own hands by killing individuals whom he deemed to be a threat to David’s kingdom. In truth, David had himself trusted these people, and they were totally unsuspicious of Joab’s intentions. Additionally, at least on one occasion, Joab had an ulterior motive that drove his actions.

The first victim of Joab’s presumptuousness was Abner (Avner) ben Ner. Abner had been a close relative of David’s predecessor, King Saul, and his chief general. After the death of Saul, Abner remained faithful to his master and did not accept the rule of King David. Instead he supported and backed Ish-Bosheth, a son of Saul, as the successor to the throne.

On one particular occasion, the generals of both sides—Joab on the side of David, and Abner on the of Ish-Bosheth—confronted each other with their men in a duel. Abner’s side lost to Joab’s, sending Abner and his men fleeing for their lives. Continuing the chase, Asahel, Joab’s younger brother, persistently pursued Abner. Abner tried to convince him to stop, but after he did not heed the warnings, Abner killed him. For this, Joab was going to have his revenge. Although Asahel wanted to kill Abner, Abner could have merely injured him, instead of inflicting a fatal blow.1

Not long after, Abner’s backing of Ish-Bosheth came to an end. Ish-Bosheth had blamed him for improper conduct with a concubine of his father, an accusation which Abner denied and by which he was deeply insulted. Abner left Ish-Bosheth, and proceeded to send his pledge of allegiance to David. David accepted Abner, on condition that he could bring back David’s wife Michal, the daughter of Saul, whom Saul in his anger had taken away from him years before. Abner indeed brought Michal back to David, and David welcomed him and threw a feast in his honor. In the meantime, Joab returned from a military campaign and found out what had happened. Infuriated, Joab reprimanded the king for allowing in Abner, as he was most certainly unfaithful and coming as a spy. Unbeknownst to David, Joab sent for Abner in the name of the king. Joab asked to speak privately with the unsuspecting Abner, and when they were together Joab killed him. David was livid at this act, cursing Joab and his descendants, while clearing his own good name of what he considered murder. David wept and lamented for Abner, and had him buried with great honor.

Our sages tell us that during that fateful meeting, Joab struck up a halachic conversation with Abner. “How does an amputee perform the mitzvah of chalitzah?” asked Joab. (The Torah instructs that if a married man dies without children, his wife should marry his brother, a practice called yibbum. If he does not want to marry her, a ceremony of chalitzah is called for, in which the woman removes a shoe from her brother-in-law’s foot in the presence of a court, and afterwards she is free to marry anyone else.) What, then, should be done if the woman has no hands to remove the shoe? Abner, say our sages, proceeded to demonstrate to Joab how the woman might be able to nevertheless remove the shoe using her teeth. In doing so, he bent over all the way, unable to see Joab as he drew his sword. It is to this that David makes reference when he said “[Joab] put the blood of war… upon his shoes that were on his feet.”2

The second victim of Joab in this way was Amasa ben Jether, a nephew of David. During the revolt of Absalom (Avshalom),3 Amasa was appointed general over the army by Absalom, replacing Joab, who remained faithful to David. During the war between the two sides, Joab killed Absalom against David’s express wishes, something that totally devastated the king. After the revolt was over, David forgave Amasa, and actually planned his appointment as general instead of Joab.

In the meantime, however, another rebellion broke out against David, this one led by a man named Sheva ben Bichri,4 and most of the Israelite tribes joined him. David instructed Amasa to immediately rally the army of the tribe of Judah to stop the rebellion. Soon after, Joab and his battalion joined the forces against Sheva ben Bichri. On the battlefield, Joab met face to face with Amasa, who was also his cousin. Staging a friendly demeanor, Joab leaned forward to kiss Amasa. Anticipating the meeting, Joab had buckled on his sword with the sheath facing down, so that when he bent forward the sword fell out. Joab bent down to pick it up, and then with a swift thrust slew the unsuspecting Amasa. It was to this that David referred to when he said, “[Joab] put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins.”

King David did not want to personally try the otherwise righteous Joab, who was endlessly faithful to him throughout his difficult reign. Joab, however, could not to escape punishment for acting in the way he did on these occasions. So instead, David instructed Solomon to carry out the justice that he could not.

The children of Barzillai

At the time of Absalom’s revolt, David and his men had to flee Jerusalem on foot. They crossed the Jordan river and camped in Machanaim. As they came, a group of well-to-do Israelites met them with an array of food and bedding for the hungry and tired army. One of the benefactors was an elderly man named Barzillai of Gilead. When it was all over and David was heading back to Jerusalem, he asked Barzillai to come back with him, so that he could richly reward him for his support. Barzilai declined, adding that he was too old to really enjoy the pleasures of life that David could offer him. Instead he asked that his son escort David back to the capital and that the king should do good unto him. David agreed, and Kimham the son of Barzillai escorted the king and was lavishly rewarded. Here, in his will to Solomon, David asks him to continue the kindness extended to the children of Barzillai.

Shimei ben Gera

Shimei (Shim’i) ben Gera was a great man, in fact a head of the Sanhedrin, but he had caused immeasurable pain and humiliation to David. When David was fleeing his son Absalom, Shimei came out and cursed David, calling him an evil murderer. He threw stones and earth at him, all the while cursing and stating that he was to blame for the members of King Saul’s court who were killed in his name, and that G‑d was punishing him now for this by his son rebelling against him.

Although Abishai, one of David’s generals, wanted to kill Shimei, David refused. At the time, David took the entire saga as an act of G‑d that would atone for his behavior in the affair of Bathsheba.5 If it had to mean that salt would be poured on his already open wound, then this too was part of the Divine plan, and he was to bear it.

As a matter of law, however, Abishai was right. Speaking in such a way to the king was punishable by death. Shimei knew this as well, and acted shrewdly. As David was returning home after the revolt, Shimei came out to him with his whole family, an entire cohort of men from Benjamin (the tribe of King Saul), and former members of Saul’s court. He threw himself at the king’s feet and begged his forgiveness. Abishai once again protested, and demanded justice. David, however, swore to Shimei that he would spare him.

The reason David forgave him this time was for strategic reasons. Had he not done this, he would risk losing a huge segment of the people who originally supported Absalom. Shimei understood this, and hinted to this by his words to the king: “Behold, I come first today from the entire house of Joseph, descending towards my master the king.”6 Meaning to say that if David would not accept him, it would deter the entire people from returning to him as well. David forgave Shimei then, but now commands Solomon that he find a way in which Shimei would indeed pay for his hideous actions.

In the verses following the conclusion of the haftarah, we read how Solomon carried out the details of his father’s last will and testament.