Thursday, January 05, 2006

Miketz (Haftarah)

The Case of the Sliced Infants

The haftarah read on Shabbat Miketz as such (i.e., when not Hanukkah) is a story familiar to many of us from childhood Bible stories: the incident in 1 Kings 3:15-4:1 demonstrating the wisdom of King Solomon. Two women—harlots, living in the same house—come to him with two infants, one of whom had been crushed to death by his mother while sleeping. The two of them squabble over which baby belongs to which mother, each one claiming to be the mother of the living baby. The king takes a sword, and proposes dividing the living baby in half, so as to be “shared” equally; the true mother, her maternal instincts aroused, is prepared to let the other woman have the baby, rather than see it die, and is thus given the child.

An interesting story, illustrating Solomon’s keen insight into human nature. One facet often overlooked is the element of gambling involved here: that, prima facie, Solomon was willing to risk the death of the child. But, more precisely, he was confident of his own understanding of human nature, and was certain that things would come out as they did. One is reminded of the brinksmanship routinely practiced in bargaining in the Oriental market, based on nerves of steel: the customer feigns disinterest in closing the deal and starts to walk off—knowing that the seller will call him back at the last moment to offer a better price (or vice versa).

But interesting as this story may be in its own right, its selection as haftarah for this week seems in fact to be based upon a single verse that precedes it: “And Solomon awoke and it was a dream…” (3:15). This verse clearly parallels Pharaoh’s dream, with which the Torah section opens. Why, then, does the haftarah not incorporate the account of the dream vision itself, the famous Divine visitation to Solomon at Gibeon (3:5-14)? This passage is one of the most interesting and unique Divine-human encounters recorded in the Bible. Here, God “plays genie” (lehavdil!), inviting Solomon to ask for whatever he wishes; in reply, the latter asks for a “responsive heart to judge your people, to distinguish between right and wrong” (3:9). Note well: he does not ask for the proverbial “Solomonic wisdom” as an end in itself, but for something subtly different—the ability to understand people, so as to serve them better in his function as king and supreme judge and to guide the people, both as a public and as individuals. God is pleased that he does not ask anything for himself, such as long life, wealth, honor, or victory over his enemies—and thus grants him these as well.

The story of the two women and their babies is clearly brought here as an illustration of the fulfillment of the Divine promise—Solomon is shown as possessing the ability to understand people, how their minds and hearts work, and to act on this knowledge to their benefit. On a certain level, this is also reminiscent of Joseph, whose shrewd psychological insight stands at the center of the chapter—including the ability to design a crafty, indirect scheme for testing his brothers, not unlike the test devised by Solomon. If so, the specific sections chosen for the haftarah—beginning with the moment of awakening from a dream, and proceeding to manifestations of practical human wisdom—parallel the Torah portion almost exactly.

After writing the above, I discussed this matter with my friend Dr. Dov Paris, who suggested a totally different line of interpretation—a symbolic reading of Mishpat Shlomo, the test or trail imposed by Solomon, which some even suggest reading as a vision or dream rather than a real-life case. In these views, the two babies symbolize the two Temples, that at Shiloh and that in Jerusalem, the one about to supercede the other; or else the contrast between Egypt and/or Babylonia as against Israel. Both of these may be related to the Torah lection, either through the rivalry between Joseph and Judah, or the contrast between Jacob’s family and the idolatrous milieu of Egypt (not to mention the conflict with Greek culture that forms the background to Hanukkah). Indeed, Ibn Ezra, in the table hymn Tzamah Nafshi, uses the phrase “No, my son is alive and your son is dead” to encapsulate the Christian-Jewish polemic. This chapter is even subject to commentary by the old Negro Jim in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.


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6:48 AM  

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