Of Transitions, Inheritances, and Worthiness

"L'adoration du veau" (1941-42), Francis Picabia

Our Torah-reading this week - and our Haftarah, our 'parting-reading' from the Prophets - both are deathbed scenes.

In the Torah, our ancestor Jacob passes away - but not before passing along carefully crafted messages to each of his sons, who will be called by his divinely given name, the Children of Israel.

Generations later, in the First Book of Kings, on his deathbed, King David gives instructions to his son and successor, Solomon.

The latter scene, in King David's palace, becomes a bit like something out of a Francis Ford Coppola mafia-movie:

"You must also deal with Shimei son of Gera, the Benjaminite from Bahurim," David reminds Solomon - "He insulted me outrageously when I was on my way to Mahanaim; but then he came down to meet me at the Jordan, and I swore to him by the Eternal One, 'I will not put you to the sword.'" (1Kings 2:8)

I promised him that - but you didn't, my clever son.

"Further, you know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of Israel's forces, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether: he killed them, shedding blood of war in peacetime, staining the girdle of his loins and the sandals on his feet with blood of war. So act in accordance with your wisdom, and see that his white hair does not go down to the underworld in peace." (1Kings 2:5)

"So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David." (1Kings 2:10). To this day, Jerusalem is known by that sobriquet - "City of David" - and not only because of David's bloody conquest of the city.

Grudges and hit-orders are not all that King David passes along to King Solomon in Jerusalem - there is a more pious message, perhaps not just pro forma:

"Now you must keep the trust of the Eternal One, to walk in God's ways, and keep God's decrees and commands, God's laws and judgments, as written in the Torah of Moses. Do this so that you may succeed in all you do and wherever you go - so that the Eternal One may keep the promise spoken to me: 'If your descendants guard their paths, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their hearts and souls, you will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel." (1Kings 2:4)

In any transition - of generations, of leadership, of tradition - there are choices as to what is passed along by the one who departs, and choices as to what is taken up by the one who follows - which are also decisions as to what is essential.

It would be overly simplifying and wrong to say that when the focus is on individuals the legacy is imperiled, whereas when the emphasis is on principles the heritage is secure.

Jacob, in his deathbed words, poetically characterizes each of his sons in turn. "Naftali is an antelope let loose" (Genesis 49:21). "Joseph is a fruitful bough," (Genesis 49:22). "Benjamin is a ravenous wolf" (Genesis 49:27). And the figures of Jacob's speech are not always complimentary. Israel has stern words for some of his children about themselves.

The nuanced interpretation seems to be that self-awareness, including alertness to the hazardous as well as the glorious aspects of oneself - and a taking of responsibility for oneself and for one's path - are at the core of what it means to inherit the blessings of Israel, or to succeed to the crown of David.

The peril, then, would be in concluding, 'I have inherited this legacy legitimately, therefore anything I do as heir to it will be in keeping,' or in presuming, 'I am destined to play this sacred part, therefore I need not be concerned about the placement of my footsteps.'

Arrogance is antithetical to worthiness in inheritance - because legacies, however glorious, require care, and do not take care of themselves.

A wise Solomon must make up his own mind in deciding how best to honor the parting instruction of a David: "I go the way of all the earth; now be you strong, and become a man" (1Kings 2:2).

Whether in the City of David or the City of Washington - or, for that matter, in the University of Harvard - leaders, all of us, must take stock of what we have inherited and of who we are. We must strive daily, and generation after generation, to discern essential legacies, to recognize the holy kernels that when cherished keep us true. We must decide, too, when to set aside passed-along feuds or stale resentments, so as to be able to nurture what is vital.

We must be humble and supple, so as to be strong. Otherwise, inheritance verges dangerously on idolatry - God forbid.