Machar Chodesh

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion

Machar Chodesh

Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein



            Quite surprisingly, reading the haftara of "Machar Chodesh" (I Shemu'el 20:18-42) on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh when Rosh Chodesh falls out on Sunday is by talmudic law (Megila 31a, bottom), and not merely a late custom. As will be pointed out many times over the course of this series, this serves as additional proof that the haftarot function not only to explain the Torah reading and expand our understanding of the weekly portion, for this haftara is not connected to the parasha in any way. So too, it cannot be argued that the reading of "Machar Chodesh" constitutes a fulfillment of the law of "which you shall proclaim to be holy gatherings (mikra kodesh)" (Vayikra 23:2) and an expression of the special sanctity of the day, as may be said about the haftarot read on the holidays, for the day before Rosh Chodesh certainly does not have any special sanctity. We are, therefore, forced to the conclusion that the essence of the haftara is to guide man as he proceeds through the cycle of life with words of the prophets that are relevant to his condition. One of these crossroads is Erev Rosh Chodesh, when man stands on the doorstep of a new period, and he is afforded the opportunity to open a new page and reorganize his life in light of the changing circumstances ushered in by the new month. As we shall see at the end of our discussion, part of the lesson of this prophecy relates precisely to this point. Thus, the haftara bears special significance for a person about to arrive at a new juncture in the yearly cycle in the light of which he lives his life.


            Were we to summarize our haftara in a few words, we might say that our haftara focuses on an examination of human relationships based upon trust and loyalty that come up against obstacles that threaten their very existence and undermine the mutual commitment upon which they are founded, but in the end fidelity overcomes the personal, egoistic approach to life. This assertion is plainly evident, emerging from the text already on a first and superficial reading of the chapter. Concealed beneath the surface, however, there are deeper levels of relationships that provide the story with its dramatic intensity, and require more profound analysis.


            The primary axis around which the human drama revolves is the tripartite relationship that includes David, Yehonatan and Sha'ul. Of course, we all know the end of the story regarding the love between David and Yehonatan, and how for Chazal their relationship serves as an example of love that is not dependent upon anything else. We tend, therefore, to read the entire story through those glasses, it being clear to us that David and Yehonatan will join together to form a coalition against Sha'ul, who is frustrated by the fact that his son has joined forces with his rival and fails to understand Yehonatan's appreciation and esteem for David. By no means, however, does this seem to be self-evident from the beginning, nor does it appear to be known to the players themselves during real time. Let us then not approach the opening point of the story with what we know at the end, and ignore thereby the tensions and fears that accompany the various characters along the way.


            Let us open with the relationship between Yehonatan and Sha'ul. On the one hand, Yehonatan is the son and designated successor of his father, as Sha'ul himself testifies in our haftara. Their relationship, however, is not so simple, and we must remember that in the background lies the story of the battle of Michmash and the honeycomb, described at length several chapters earlier (I Shemu'el 14).[1] It should be remembered that Yehonatan went out alone to conquer the Philistine post and thus he brought about a great salvation, but Sha'ul's response was particularly chilly and not at all gracious.


            If we stop for a moment and consider the incident and the relationship between Sha'ul and Yehonatan revealed thereby, we see the many parallels between it and the battle between David and Golyat, and Sha'ul's response to it. In both cases, Israel is under great pressure from the Philistines. The security situation is very difficult, and it is accompanied by a sense of defeat and submission on the part of the nation. Under these difficult circumstances, two individuals take it upon themselves to fight the Philistines[2] in a one-man battle, heavily laden with symbolism, while waiving more commonly-accepted military means. Both David and Yehonatan emphasize the spiritual component of their respective battles, and cast their trust upon God that He will save Israel. The battle is decided neither by hidden military factors nor by sophisticated psychological warfare, but by faith and trust in the God of Israel who is not stopped from saving His people with only a few men or many.


            In the wake of the great salvation[3] enjoyed by Israel in the aftermath of David and Yehonatan's acts of self-sacrifice, Sha'ul displays little joy. His reactions reveal a not insignificant amount of jealousy and frustration with the fact that these young men took the initiative and emerged victorious by the power of their faith, whereas his own actions reflect fear and hesitation. These feelings are certainly explicit in the case of David, and play a prominent role in our haftara, but it seems to me that they also break through between the lines in Sha'ul's response in the case of Yehonatan. In contrast, the nation expresses its appreciation and esteem toward these two warriors, stating these feelings in a clear and open manner, which only deepens the divide and intensifies the tension between the king and David and Yehonatan.


            In light of this, let us try to understand Yehonatan, who finds himself in the middle between Sha'ul and David. On the one hand, he is Sha'ul's son, with all the emotional involvement and shared destiny that binds them. As a result, Sha'ul hangs his hopes for the future upon him, consults with him, and makes use of him in the administration of his kingdom. On the other hand, Yehonatan's soul is bound to the soul of David, as Scripture states (18:1-2): "The soul of Yehonatan was knit with the soul of David, and Yehonatan loved him as his own soul… Then Yehonatan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul." In light of the parallels that we saw above, we can understand the foundation of this love, namely, emotional closeness based on common values, a shared world outlook and very similar personalities. That which is common to the two stories did not come into the world by chance, but is rather the result of a similar attitude toward life and like personalities. It is easy to understand why Yehonatan, who lives in the royal court among people who are very different from him (as we can see from his mode of action in that battle; he lives a solitary life, and therefore acts on his own), would rejoice when he discovers a friend who is close to him and his world in every fiber of his soul.


            Second, in light of the parallels that we saw above, we can well understand Yehonatan's ability to understand David's situation. When the verse informs us that "Sha'ul spoke to Yehonatan his son, and to all his servants, that they should kill David; but Yehonatan the son of Sha'ul delighted much in David" (19:1), let us try to imagine what went through Yehonatan's mind. Do not thoughts and memories of those fateful moments when Sha'ul had wanted to kill him rise up in his mind? Does not his flashback to that awful moment when Sha'ul had determined that "God should do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Yonatan" (14:44) cause him to quiver, to understand David's situation to the depths of existential dread and to identify with him?


            We see then that Yehonatan finds himself in an exceedingly difficult situation of double loyalty. On the one hand, he is committed to his father and identifies with him as a son with his father. Despite the tensions between Sha'ul and Yehonatan, we dare not make light of the intensity of the emotional connection between father and his first-born son, who is also his right-hand man, nor forget the description of their relationship offered by David himself: "Sha'ul and Yehonatan were loved and dear in their lives, and in their death they were not divided" (II Shemu'el 1:23). On the other hand, Yehonatan enters into a covenant with David based on exceedingly deep love – and let us keep in mind that a covenant means that the two parties join together to form a single entity despite the fact that on the outside they are perceived as two different parties – and feels committed to him based on an understanding of his situation and the threat that hovers over him.


            It seems then that the drama at the focus of "Machar Chodesh" is Yehonatan's need to come to an unequivocal decision and choose one of these two loyalties over the other. Until now, he has tried to maintain both and he believed that he was capable of doing so. And indeed, he was at first successful and was not compelled to decide.[4] However, as David clarifies the situation to him at the beginning of chapter 20, it is no longer possible to continue with this policy, and Yehonatan can no longer escape coming to a painful decision.


            [Truth be told, Yehonatan's sister Mikhal who had married David faced a similar dilemma when Sha'ul wished to arrest David in his house and she decided in favor of her husband, and in this sense the story of Yehonatan constitutes a direct continuation of the previous chapter. There is, however, no comparing a friend to a wife, nor is there any similarity between the heir-apparent to the throne who allies himself with a rival who constitutes a potential threat to his own succession to the crown, and the daughter of the king, who neither herself nor her husband has any pretensions to rule. Thus, the story in our chapter is at an entirely different level than that in the previous chapter.]


At this point, let us change roles and examine the matter from David's perspective. As stated above, there exists a deep emotional bond between him and Yehonatan, this being based upon the similarity of their personalities and their shared spiritual world. David, however, is also aware of the other side of the equation, namely, the emotional connections between father and son and their joint interest regarding the continuity of the kingdom. Up until now, Yehonatan had tried to maintain both relationships and proper conduct with both his father and with David, and David does not doubt Yehonatan's sincerity or his deep desire to defend him. But David also understands that this policy has come to a dead end and that it can no longer work. In the opening verses of chapter 20, that precede the haftara, he clarifies this point to his friend who has not yet internalized the change that has transpired:


And David fled from Nayot in Rama, and came and said before Yehonatan, What have I done? What is my crime? And what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life? And he said to him, Far be it! You shall not die: behold, my father will do nothing either great or small, without revealing it to me: and why should my father hide this thing from me? It is not so. And David swore moreover, and said, Your father certainly knows that I have found favor in your eyes; and he says, Let not Yehonatan know this, lest he be grieved: but truly as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death. (20:1-3)


            Yehonatan responds by proposing a meeting in the field, and David agrees. While reading the haftara in the synagogue, when we all know the conclusion and how Yehonatan's loyalty will shine, David's agreement to Yehonatan's proposal might appear clear and self-evident. It seems, however, that at the time it was by no means clear and simple. In fact, when David agrees to Yehonatan's plan to wait in the field, he places his fate in his hands and waives his own independence. David had an alternative, namely, to flee far away from Sha'ul's watchful eyes to the desert or to even more remote places, as indeed he does later in the book. His remaining in the field, in a place where he could easily be ambushed and caught, requires that he place his full trust in Yehonatan and believe that his personal loyalty to David will outweigh his commitment to his father. In the event that this proves not to be the case, and Yehonatan will feel committed to his father, or he will be persuaded to accept his father's position regarding the need to distance David from the monarchy, and the personal/familial interest and the idea of continuity of rule will win out, it will turn out that David had entrusted his life to Sha'ul's camp. Why should he rely on an uncertain outcome? Would it not be easier to run away and retain control over his own fate? It is very possible that Yehonatan will maintain his loyalty, but why not opt for the secure and simple path of leaving the region, and thus avoid all suspicions and concerns? Surely, David is well aware of the temptations and pressures awaiting Yehonatan, to which there may be an allusion in the scriptural text preceding the beginning of the haftara:


If he says thus, It is well; then your servant shall have peace: but if he be very angry, then you should know that evil is determined by him. Therefore deal kindly with your servant; for you have brought your servant into a covenant of the Lord with you: but if there be in me iniquity, slay me yourself; for why should you bring me to your father? (20:7-8)


            Therefore, David also stands before a decision, whether he should place his trust in the fidelity of his closest friend, his soul mate and ally, and this at the cost of assuming a certain risk, or should he speak to Yehonatan -  who is under heavy and ceaseless pressure from his father and advisors, and who is paying a dear personal price for his adherence to his covenant with David – about his doubts regarding his friendship and his hesitations about his loyalty.


            We see then that the haftara presents us not with a single decision concerning loyalty and friendship, but with two mutual decisions. Yehonatan must decide between his father and David, and David must express his trust or lack of trust in the sufficiency of Yehonatan's loyalty. The decision is two-way; each of them must choose between the mutual covenant of loyalty that they had entered into and a simpler alternative.


            It should be added that Yehonatan is also called upon to rely on David's loyalty. In the event that David will rule after Sha'ul's passing, Yehonatan is liable to jeopardize the stability of his monarchy and constitute a rival power base, as indeed happens after Sha'ul's death with Ish-Boshet. Yehonatan, who recognizes David's authority, trusts that he will not conspire against him or his standing, and that he will not take any harsh steps against him as representative of the house of Sha'ul. Just as David expresses his concerns before Yehonatan, as we saw above, so too Yehonatan makes David aware of this issue. In the verses that precede our haftara and serve as its background, Yehonatan recognizes the future of David's kingdom and asks that his descendants merit David's lovingkindness:


And the Lord be with you, as He has been with my father. And you shall not only while yet I live, even before I die, show me the loyal love of the Lord: but also you shall not cut off your covenant love from my house for ever: no, not when the Lord has cut off the enemies of David every one from the face of the earth. (20:13-15)


            Just as David must rely on Yehonatan's integrity and loyalty in the present, so Yehonatan must rely on David's fidelity in the future, and therefore we are dealing with a mutual decision to prefer the personal loyalty of two souls who are bound to each other over the personal interests of each of them, which stand in utter contradiction. The story of the haftara is that of preference given to friendship and loyalty over personal and utilitarian interests that dictate policies that are just the opposite of those that follow from personal loyalty. Trust rather than benefit, friendship rather than interest, truth rather than profit – this is the basic message of the haftara of "Machar Chodesh."


            In conclusion, let us try to understand the connection between the haftara and Rosh Chodeh, or more precisely, the fact that Rosh Chodesh is approaching. Obviously, the clear and simple connection is that the chapter describes a Rosh Chodesh celebration, and the story revolves around a Rosh Chodesh feast. However, if we seek a more profound connection, in addition to the manifest connection, it seems that a certain point should be emphasized, namely, the ability to confront the future. Sha'ul and his house stand before an unexpected situation that endangers the continuity of his rule and mixes up all his cards. Sha'ul sees his sons as continuing his kingship and establishing a dynasty that will last for years. This, however, is not the way providence views the matter, whether because of Sha'ul's sins or because of the ancient promise that "the staff shall not depart from Yehuda" that gave the monarchy to the kings of the tribe of Yehuda. Either way, the house of Sha'ul must choose between (1) accepting the new reality, accommodating themselves to it and acting within its framework, or (2) trying to oppose it. On this matter, Sha'ul and Yehonatan part company. Sha'ul tries to entrench himself in the previous reality and is unprepared to display flexibility and recognize the changes that have occurred, whereas Yehonatan understands that the course of the kingdom of Israel has changed and that the situation that his father is hoping for will not return, and therefore he must accept the new reality, recognize it and act accordingly. Therefore, while Sha'ul fights a desperate and hopeless battle against David, Yehonatan allies himself with David, declares his recognition of David's monarchy and seeks a path to operate within its framework.[5]


            The declaration of "Machar Chodesh" informs us that a new period, or at least the possibility of change and a new reality, is about to arrive. While it is certainly possible that the incoming month will simply repeat the fixed cycle of appearance and disappearance of previous months, one must nevertheless consider the possibility that the new month will herald a new period and a situation different from the past. The presentation of the two characters of father and son - the one who remains fixed in his ideas and fights a battle to the bitter end to preserve the past which is slowly disappearing, while the other looks out to the future with a trusting eye without worrying about his adjustment to it and its ramifications – comes to prepare us for the future that is coming upon us. And this is not necessarily when the day is already Rosh Chodesh. On the contrary, if tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, then now is the time to prepare for it and be ready to confront and adjust oneself to the new reality.




[1] In the framework of a short shiur on the haftara, we cannot cite all the verses in the chapter or analyze the story at great length. A careful reading of the entire chapter is, however, highly recommended.


[2] David and Yehonatan's intentional use of the term "uncircumcised" as a designation of the Philistines also comes to emphasize the religious dimension of the war and see it as the focus of the struggle, while shifting the national and territorial components from center stage. Besides these two places, only Shimshon makes similar use of the expression "uncircumcised." Moreover, all the other reports about the wars between Israel and the other nations in the books of the earlier prophets mention the national affiliation of Israel's enemies but do not refer to them with this designation.


[3] This too is a common expression found in both struggles; see 14:45 and 19:5.


[4] See the beginning of chapter 19.


[5] The Ramban (Bereishit 49:10), in his discussion regarding the appointment of a king, proposes the following possibilities regarding the status of the kingdom of the house of Sha'ul, had Sha'ul's sin not brought it to an end: "Had he not sinned, his descendants would have retained monarchy in Israel, but not over all of Israel. This is the meaning of 'upon Israel' (I Shemu'el 13:13). Perhaps he would have ruled over the nations issuing from his foremother [Rachel], namely, over Binyamin, Efrayim and Menashe, for Yehuda and Efrayim are considered like two nations in Israel. Alternatively, he would have been a king ruling under the king of Yehuda."


(Translated by David Strauss)