April 12, 2024
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A Hard Question About That ‘Hardly Heard’ Haftarah

Last Shabbos was Parshat Miketz. Something unusual happened last Shabbos: We read the haftarah assigned to Parshat Miketz. Assuming I counted correctly, over 100 years, this year, 5781 to the year 5881, this haftarah will be read only 10 times. Normally Parshat Miketz is read on either the first or second Shabbos of Chanukah, hence a special haftarah is usually read, but not this year. Nothing is by happenstance. We will next hear this haftarah in three years (5784) and not again for 20 years from now (5801). Of course, every week we must ask what contemporary message does the haftarah hold. That question is more pronounced when the haftarah is this rare.

The haftarah for Miketz is the famous story of King Solomon proposing to cut a baby in half. One of the main questions is why after the first woman said let the second woman have the child, did the second woman suggest going ahead with cutting it in half. The midrash for Shir HaShirim gives the answer: the two women are mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and both were widows. The living child was that of the mother-in-law, making that baby the other woman’s brother-in-law. The daughter-in-law’s husband, and his only offspring, are dead, making the law of yibum applicable. As such, the daughter-in-law must either marry or perform chalitzah with her brother-in-law. The problem is that brother-in-law is only 3 days old. Therefore, she must wait until he reaches majority before chalitzah can take place, freeing her to marry someone else. By falsely claiming the baby is hers, in the eyes of man she is free to remarry. If, however, the king kills the baby by cutting it in half, she is free to remarry even in God’s eyes, although no doubt Hashem will hold her guilty for crimes and sins. Bearing in mind this additional aspect of the story, we return to the question of what immediate message are we to take from this haftarah?

It would initially seem that haftarah’s current import would be found in the daughter-in-law’s actions. The daughter-in-law is notable for her disregard of truth, her willingness to harm the innocent for her own benefit, placing higher value on how mankind views her than how God views her, and believing she can escape God’s judgment. Indeed, if we look to contemporary politics, her actions are terrifyingly familiar. Yet on closer examination, an unrelated verse stands out.

When the mother-in-law describes their living conditions, she states: “And we were together, there was no stranger with us in the house, only the two of us together were in the house.” (“ וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ יַחְדָּ֗ו אֵֽין־זָ֚ר אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ בַּבַּ֔יִת זוּלָתִ֥י שְׁתַּֽיִם־אֲנַ֖חְנוּ בַּבָּֽיִת”) (Melachim I, 3:18). Why does the mother-in-law bother to tell us that there were no strangers in the house and the two women were alone? If the point is to say that there were no valid witnesses, it would be sufficient to say that the women were alone.

The comment that there were no strangers in the house goes to the fact that these women are described as “zonot.” This could mean they were prostitutes or innkeepers. In either event, the comment of “no strangers in the house” suggests a lack of patrons of any kind. We may therefore presume that the women were lacking in resources. Not only were they lacking in money, but their family is absent.

Consider the following: For the mother-in-law’s deceased son to have been married he was presumably about age 18. (Pirkei Avot 5:24). In the 18 years since his birth and the birth of the child who is at the heart of the dispute, did she not have other children? Where are those children? Why are they not assisting their pregnant mother and sister-in-law? Similarly, did not the daughter-in-law have any relatives; where are they? Further, could the community have been oblivious of two widowed expecting women? Where was the community? Moreover, if these women, accompanied by such a young infant, were able to appear in the capital before the king, they must have been living either in the capital or nearby. These were not women living on the outskirts of society in the wilderness. So why was there no one in the house to help them after they had so recently both given birth? Chief among the terrifying aspects of this haftarah is, of course, the daughter-in-law’s behavior, but second to that is the fact that these women were left alone.

During this pandemic, my community, and no doubt yours as well, rose to the occasion. A degree of achdut, of caring and compassion for our neighbors has been greatly manifest. Yet, perhaps, the message we are to take from this rarely read haftarah is that we could and must do more. This is not to say that much has not been done, rather it is to say more could, should and must be done. More to be done not only to assist one another but to bind our communities together. Such a message dovetails nicely with the haftarah to be read this week for Parshat Vayigash. That haftarah from Yechezkel, mirroring the theme of Parshat Vayigash, foretells of the day when all of Bnei Yisrael will be reunited, bound together by Hashem. Let our actions hasten that day.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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