The haftarah for parashat Chayyei Sarah begins
וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיְכַסֻּהוּ בַּבְּגָדִים וְלֹא יִחַם לֽוֹ
“King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm.” (I Kings 1:1, JPS)
It sounds simple and reasonable enough. As people age, they sometimes do loose the ability to regulate body heat, and are more sensitive to the lack of external heat. Yes, we understand the mechanisms that allow our mammalian bodies to regulate heat. Even younger people can sometimes experience that moment when clothes or blankets are just not enough to fend off the chill. (Having lived for a decade in North Dakota, a place where it can get and stay really cold, you’d think I’d be more immune to feeling the chill in more temperate climates. Alas, it seems to be relative, and certainly more so as I age.)
But what about that other kind of heat, that spiritual fire, that aish hakodesh that burns within us. And surely such passion burns within great people like David HaMelekh! I think such passion is not reserved for the great – it can burn in the most humble and non-self-aggrandizing people. I think it burns in more people than we realize. I know that this inner flame, this passion, drives me to do the work that I do. It can be the force that pushes me forward on one of those “I just don’t want to get up and go to work” days. Sometimes, I don’t know how I would fare without that inner passion.
It seems, however, that David had little left of passion – both spiritual and physical. For when Avishag the Shunamite was brought to “warm his bed” he was “not intimate with her.”
David had a troubled life, no doubt. David was not a perfect ruler, nor a perfect servant of G”d. Now that he was old and infirm, those around him plotted and schemed to secure their own futures. David was perhaps so “out of it” he didn’t even realize all that was happening. However, he has a lucid enough moment to act to insure that his promise to Bathsheva, that her son Solomon would rule after David, would be kept. It took a little goading from Nathan the prophet, but David gathered enough energy and passion to spoil Adonijah’s hopes and declare Solomon his successor.
I am reminded of the scene near the end of “Man of LaMancha” when, spurred on by the words of Aldonza and his faithful squire Sancho Panza, the dying Don Quixote shows a sudden burst of strength and passion, and he is once again ready to challenge the wicked–only to die in these throws of passion. Our scene is set–we have Bathsheva to play Aldonza and Nathan to play Sancho (though Nathan is perhaps more like Dr. Carrasco, mirroring Alonso Quixanos erratic behavior right back at him.)
But I digress. David’s failure to be warm can perhaps be explained by more than just old age. His internal fire had grown dim – through his own actions, and how he responded to the world around him. In addition, they offered the King an external source for warmth, but that didn’t seem to be what he needed.
What about us? I know that I certainly experience periods of spiritual cold, when it seems no amount of prayer, supplication, fasting, celebrating, etc. seems to be able to keep me warm. It’s easy to blame this on external factors. “The rabbi led a lousy service.” “The Hazzan sounded awful.” Or we blame distractions. “I just can’t stand hearing the organ” or “It just doesn’t work for me when instruments are played on Shabbat” or “All this new-fangled music just doesn’t do it for me” or “all this old fuddy-duddy music doesn’t do it for me.”
Now, to some extent, I’ll accept that it can be hard to get your internal flame stimulated all the time. And some things really might not work for some people. However, ultimately, only two things can regulate our internal flame. We can, and G”d can. (And even G”d, but giving us free will, has limited G”d’s ability to do that for us.) When something’s not working for us, maybe we need to try harder to kindle our own internal flame, or find something that will help us do so. Or find something in the thing that’s “not working” that maybe we couldn’t see, or didn’t try hard enough to see.
Flames, by their nature, consume. Passion also consumes. How can we sustain our passion indefinitely, and, even when it wanes, how can we be sure there’s a working pilot light to restart it when we have found more fuel to consume?
We must work hard to prevent that inner flame, that pilot light, from guttering and going out. I think I can say, with some surety, that my Judaism is one thing that seems to guard against that more than anything else except perhaps music. (I guess that’s something of an ouroboros, is it not? Judaism and music are the passions that drive and sustain me. They stoke the flame of my passion. They are, also, my passions. Passions burn brightly and strongly, consuming the very fuel that drives them. They do seem to feed upon themselves. A potentially disconcerting thought. What keeps the circle going? I know the ouroboros (can) represent an eternal cycle of creation – but is it not, effectively, a perpetual motion machine, and is that not something impossible in our universe that way it works?
So here’s a question in the “can G”d create a rock that even G”d cannot lift” category: Can G”d create a universe with physical structure and laws that render perpetual motion impossible and then create a perpetual motion machine in that universe?
Better, perhaps, paralleling our own experience as a species with this planet, we ought to consider finding renewable resources to fuel our passions. Some view Torah as a limitless source – I’m not sure I agree. I believe Torah is a renewable resource, an it requires us to interact with it regularly in order for it to be renewed. Yes, it would surely be simpler to see Torah as a never-ending fuel for passions, and to understand G”d in that same way. However, I am of Israel, an I struggle with G”d and Torah. Out of this very struggle is born the ability of Torah to be a renewable resource. Friction, even of the internal type, can produce heat and ultimately yield a flame. Judaism is a religion, a worldview of balancing forces. It’s when those balancing forces rub against one another that the heat, the flame of Torah is generated. If we just let Torah sit there, and revere it, it may lose its ability to be renewed. “G”d does the renewing” cry many voices. Perhaps so, but I believe G”d can only do this in partnership with us.
As mammals, warmth matters to us. It is, amazingly, something that we can self-generate (though not limitlessly.) This ability is a gift from G”d (and evolution.) Given that, if we’re never warm, perhaps we have only ourselves to blame? Time to turn up the gas. Time to insure a renewable source of energy, and not a static one.
An ailing King David says to Bathsheva:
וַיִּשָּׁבַע הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיֹּאמַר חַי־יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר־פָּדָה אֶת־נַפְשִׁי מִכָּל־צָרָֽה: ל כִּי כַּֽאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָךְ בַּֽיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר כִּֽי־שְׁלֹמֹה בְנֵךְ יִמְלֹךְ אַֽחֲרַי וְהוּא יֵשֵׁב עַל־כִּסְאִי תַּחְתָּי כִּי כֵּן אֶעֱשֶׂה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּֽה
“And the King took an oath, saying ‘As the L”rd lives, who has rescued me from every trouble: The oath I swore to you by the L”rd, the G”d of Israel, that you son Solomon should succeed me as King and that he should sit upon my throne in my stead, I will fulfill this very day!’ ” (1 Kings 1:29-30, JPS)
As a dying Alonso Quixanos says to those around him: “Not well? What is illness to the body of a knight-errant? What matter wounds? For each time he falls, he shall rise again, and woe to the wicked.” (Man of LaMancha-Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion.)
Not warm? Never seem to be able to get warm? Turn your own spiritual flame up high. Find a renewable source to fuel your passions. Dream your impossible dream.
©2015 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester
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