June 18, 2024
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Something About the Haftorah Bugs Me

What do some types of Cicada insects and the haftorah to be read this year on Shabbat Miketz have in common? The answer is a 17 year absence.

Normally Parshat Miketz is read on either the first or second shabbos of Chanukah. As such, a special haftorah is usually read—but not this year. This year we will read the famous story of King Solomon proposing to cut a baby in half when two women, each claiming to be the child’s mother, appear before him. We last read this haftorah in 5781 (2020), and will not read it again until 5801 (2040). Over the course of the next 100 years (5724 to 5824), we will only read this haftorah nine times. Although I know that the rarity of reading this haftorah is the result of quirky calendar logic, I began to wonder if there might be other reasons why the haftorah is so infrequent.

The haftorah read on Shabbos Chanukah is the same as that for Parshat Beha’alotcha. (Zechariah 2:14-4:7). At its conclusion we have the well know phrase: “Not with character (or resolve), and not with strength, for rather with my spirit says the L-rd of hosts.” (לֹ֤א בְחַ֙יִל֙ וְלֹ֣א בְכֹ֔חַ כִּ֣י אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י אָמַ֖ר ה` צְבָאֽוֹת). The haftorah for Chanukah emphasizes Hashem as the source of salvation. In contrast, the haftorah for Miketz places an emphasis on human action, particularly King Solomon’s wisdom. Granted, all wisdom comes from Hashem, but the haftorah does not highlight this reality. This can be seen in the fact that the haftorah commences with the statement that: “And Solomon awoke and it was a dream.” (1 Melachim 3:15). The haftorah excludes the dream itself in which Hashem grants Solomon’s request for “a comprehending heart to judge Your Nation, to distinguish between good and evil…” (3:9). Moreover, in rendering judgment, King Solomon relies on his special kingly powers to dispense justice rather than refer the matter to a beit din. This focus on human rather than Divine action makes sense, as it parallels Yosef’s action in the parsha in testing, or dispensing justice to, his brothers. Taking matters into one’s own hands, without consulting Halacha, or others who might have more experience, is not an approach to be particularly encouraged. Therefore, not reading this haftorah frequently can be understood. Yet, the haftorah serves to remind us of some important obligations.

The haftorah tells us that the two women who appeared before King Solomon were “zonot.” (3:16) (אָ֣ז תָּבֹ֗אנָה שְׁתַּ֛יִם נָשִׁ֥ים זֹנ֖וֹת אֶל־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֖דְנָה לְפָנָֽיו). This could mean they were prostitutes or innkeepers. In either event, the comment that there were “no strangers in the house” when the events occurred, (3:18), 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 was absent.

The midrash for Shir HaShirim tells us that the two women are mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and both are widows. (The living child was that of the mother-in-law, making that baby the other woman’s brother-in-law.) For the mother-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 prior to the birth of his newborn brother, did his mother have other children? Where are those children? Why are they not assisting their pregnant mother and pregnant sister-in-law? Similarly, did not the daughter-in-law have any relatives, where are they? Further, how was the community oblivious of two widowed, expecting women? Where was the community? Indeed, 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 haftorah is the daughter-in-law’s behavior1 which demonstrates, in the same manner as recent events reminded us, that not all humans act humanely. The second terrifying aspect of this haftorah is the fact that these women were left alone.

The haftorah serves to remind us of our obligations to our follow Jews, “our brethren the whole House of Israel” (אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל). The two women in the haftorah were seemingly abandoned by those around them. The haftorah should prod us to make certain that we never do the same.

It cannot be coincidence that the last time we read this haftorah we were still dealing with the pandemic which placed many in need and limited our interactions. Nonetheless, the Jewish community, and particularly the orthodox Jewish community, rose to the occasion.

Now we read this haftorah in a year when Israel needs our help and we have risen to the occasion. Yet, as captives are freed, and some IDF objectives are obtained, we may begin to become complacent. This haftorah should remind us that it cannot be so. Our prayers, our acts of kindness, our Torah study and our tangible support of Israel cannot diminish. Our human undertakings must continue while recognizing that victory and success will not come from our resolve and our strength, but from Hashem’s spirit. If we remember this, and act accordingly, then we will show true wisdom.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors 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.

 

1 The daughter-in-law’s behavior is immoral and shocking but possessed of a twisted logic. The daughter-in-law’s husband is dead and his only offspring, the dead child, did not live long enough to exempt the widow from the law of yibbum. As such, the widow must either marry the brother -in-law or perform halizah. The problem is that the brother-in-law is only three days old. Therefore, the daughter-in-law must wait until her infant brother-in-law reaches majority before he can either marry her or perform halizah and free her to marry someone else. Thus, 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.

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