Searches for Woman

Each week, in Jewish tradition, a reading from the Prophets, the second segment of our trifold Hebrew Scriptures, is paired with our reading from the Torah - a Haftarah (literally a 'leave-taking') to go with our prescribed Parashah, our segment of reading from the Pentateuch (a.k.a. the 'Five Books of Moses'), the first and foremost section of our Bible. It is generally understood that the Haftarah from the Prophets is meant to cast interpretive light on the week's Torah-reading.

At first, as our Haftarah opens this week, one may feel a sense of outrage at the scriptural selection.

After all, we have just been reading in the Torah about Abraham's sending his trusty servant, Eliezer, back to the land of the patriarch's birth, there to discern and recruit a worthy wife for Abraham's son, for Isaac. The narrative of Isaac and Rebekah, when eventually they meet and share life, is (at least in parts) one of the world's earliest stories of playful and comforting affection between spouses. But the test of worthiness in which Rebekah is discovered at the outset is all to do with merit and virtue rather than romance or sensual appeal. Eliezer, watching women gather at a well, prays to God for a sign, saying, "The maiden to whom I say, 'Draw, please, a little water for me from the well,' and she replies, 'Here, drink you, and also for your camels I will draw,' that one shall be the woman whom the Eternal One has appointed for my master's son." (Genesis 24:12)

The choice of Rebekah is a choice based upon her manifest generosity, her voluntarism and forthcoming way - in other words, upon her action.

We should remember, too, that Rebekah's story continues as an account of the most consequential action. It is Rebekah who stage-manages the ploy whereby aged Isaac winds up passing his principal blessing on to his second-born son, the mild Jacob, rather than to his firstborn, fierce Esau. In other words, Rebekah determines the succession that becomes the story of our people.

Now comes the Haftarah. "King David was advanced in years, and they covered him in bedclothes, but he did not feel warm. So the servants of the king said to him, 'Let us seek out for m'lord the king a young virgin, and she shall stand before the king, and be a companion to him, and lie against his breast, so that m'lord the king may feel warm.' And they searched for a beautiful maiden in all the boundaries of Israel, and they found Avishag the Shunammite, and they brought her to the king. And the maiden was exceedingly beautiful." (1Kings 1:1-4)

Does our tradition, with this pairing, really mean to suggest that the search for Rebekah can be likened to the search for Avishag - that discernment of virtue in a woman should be interpreted by way of a beauty contest?

But just as we may be feeling furious at our early rabbinic Sages - remembrance of them should be a blessing - for yoking these two unlike narratives together, another woman appears on the scene of our Haftarah. And if we zoom out from our immediate story for a longer narrative sweep, we discover that this woman who now enters king David's bedchamber is a personage who begins her career in our Bible as something like an Avishag but will end up, in the present drama, as much more of a Rebekah.

It is Batsheva - and if, by way of introduction, I remind us that king David, in his younger and hotter days, first sees Batsheva bathing on a roof, undergraduates may sooner start humming a famous Leonard Cohen song than biblical cantilation. But Leonard Cohen got it right: Batsheva's beauty in the moonlight overthrew David - so much so that the young, hot king promptly sent Batsheva's original husband out to die in battle so that he, David, could take Batsheva for himself.

Now, in our Haftarah, Batsheva enters as a woman old as her near-to-death husband the king. One of David's sons, Adoniyah, from a different marriage (yes he had several, simultaneously, and concubines too) has begun to parade around Jerusalem in royal chariotry, and to put on kingly feasts, rudely anticipating his father's imminent demise and his own presumed coronation; and Batsheva has come to plead the case of her own son, Solomon.

Although they do not spell it out explicitly, the biblical verses invite us to consider the hard moment from aged Batsheva's perspective. Enter Batsheva, "and Avishag the Shunamite is serving before the king," says our scripture, in the present tense, as though to place us right in the excruciating scene.

Excruciating because Batsheva was young once, and chosen (as far as David was concerned in that heated, long-ago, roof-bathing moment) for nothing but her beauty. And now she has come to assert herself as kingmaker - with her own substitute, insofar as nubile bedroom girls are concerned, standing right there, in all her youthful glory. Avishag's presence signals in neon (if one may inject a modern gas into an ancient story for Baz Luhrmann-like effect) that the king has moved on, even in old age, to a new conquest in the woman department - such was patriarchal privilege, royal and otherwise.

Then Batsheva speaks (Avishag never does, by the way), and we discover that our Haftarah is actually about the woman who refuses to end her days as a discarded Avishag and instead owns her right to be a vital Rebekah. Batsheva never says as much, but with her canny way of reminding David of his youthful promises - her recollection of David's erstwhile assurances to a young Batsheva and to the child of his passion with her, Solomon - aged Batsheva insists, clear as day, and as though she were saying it out loud, 'You may first have seen me as a plaything, but I am your partner, your queen, and a woman who, like Rebekah, will shape destiny.'

Now that's a pairing worthy of shedding interpretive light on our Torah!