The Wisdom of Solomon: Protecting our Democracy from the Sword

The Jewish calendar is intricate, and sometimes quirky. By one of those quirks -- relating to which day of the week Rosh Hashanah fell on and how many days there were in the Hebrew month of Cheshvan this year -- we find ourselves in an unusual calendar situation. In a typical year, this week's Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, would have been read during Chanukah, but this year, for the first time in two decades, Miketz is read on the Shabbat after Chanukah.

The Jewish calendar is intricate, and sometimes quirky. By one of those quirks -- relating to which day of the week Rosh Hashanah fell on and how many days there were in the Hebrew month of Cheshvan this year -- we find ourselves in an unusual calendar situation. In a typical year, this week's Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, would have been read during Chanukah, but this year, for the first time in two decades, Miketz is read on the Shabbat after Chanukah.

Why is this significant? Since the Shabbat during Chanukah has a special haftorah (the reading from Prophets that's paired with the Torah portion or holiday), this means that the regular haftorah for Parashat Miketz will be read this year for the first time in 20 years! It's a well-known story, but one that's rarely read in public, so this calendar quirk affords us the unique opportunity to explore it... and to be honest, the timing feels prescient, so I'm pleased to be able to share it with you.

Just before this story begins in the Book of I Kings, King Solomon has consolidated his political power and -- in a dream -- has asked God for wisdom. Now, he serves as a judge too. Here is the full text of the haftorah (which can be found in Hebrew as well here - I Kings 3:15-4:1):

Later two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.

The first woman said, “Please, my lord! This woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. On the third day after I was delivered, this woman also gave birth to a child. We were alone; there was no one else with us in the house, just the two of us in the house. During the night this woman’s child died, because she lay on it. She arose in the night and took my son from my side while your maidservant was asleep, and laid him in her bosom; and she laid her dead son in my bosom. When I arose in the morning to nurse my son, there he was, dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, it was not the son I had borne.”

The other woman spoke up, “No, the live one is my son, and the dead one is yours!” But the first insisted, “No, the dead boy is yours; mine is the live one!” And they went on arguing before the king.

The king said, “One says, ‘This is my son, the live one, and the dead one is yours’; and the other says, ‘No, the dead boy is yours, mine is the live one.’ So the king gave the order, “Fetch me a sword.” A sword was brought before the king, and the king said, “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.”

But the woman whose son was the live one pleaded with the king, for she was overcome with compassion for her son. “Please, my lord,” she cried, “give her the live child; only don’t kill it!” The other insisted, “It shall be neither yours nor mine; cut it in two!”

Then the king spoke up. “Give the live child to her,” he said, “and do not put it to death; she is its mother.” When all Israel heard the decision that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king; for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice.

This dramatic story feels incredibly relevant to me in the context of this week, as the Electoral College vote earlier this week has finally put an end to a dramatic and unprecedented election season! In the haftorah, Solomon has to adjudicate between two women: one of whom (by definition) must be telling the truth and one of whom must be outright lying. Although at the outset it isn't clear -- to either him or to the reader -- which is which, Solomon has the wisdom to discern that the one who cares about preserving the life of the baby is the true mother of the child.

Since November 3rd, we have seen a similar pattern play out in 60 court cases, in which the Trump administration has tried to invalidate the results of our presidential election, falsely claiming victory. Both sides wanted to win the election, of course, but only one actually did. In 59(!) of those cases -- across state and federal courts, including, of course, the Supreme Court -- Trump and his allies have lost. Almost uniformly, judges have been able to discern truth from lies. In this analogy, I offer that the baby is American democracy itself: the side that is telling the truth is the one that wants to ensure that our democracy remains intact, and the side that is lying is willing to sacrifice both democratic and fundamental moral principles in an attempt to take down the system such that no one gets the baby.

The text of the haftorah comes to an abrupt end after Solomon's verdict, with the people of Israel lauding him for his wisdom in judgment. And, we could stop here too: praising our judicial system for continuing to function as it was intended to, even under great duress. Democracy has been upheld, at least for now. (Phew!)

But, as I read the haftorah from this moment in time, it occurs to me to be curious about what the text doesn't tell us. I find myself wondering about the psychology of the woman who was lying: did she know she was lying, or was she in such a deep state of denial about having accidentally smothered her own baby that she had really talked herself into believing that the living baby was her own? And, I also wonder, what happened after Solomon's verdict? Did the two women go back to living in the same home, or did one of them decide to move out? Did the one with the living baby go on to become a great mother? What did this baby go on to do and be in the world? And what was the fate of the other woman... who now, on top of her extreme grief, also left court humiliated? Did she go on to have other children? Did she remain a thief and liar forever? The text isn't concerned about these questions, but I wish there were a sequel we could read.

In America 2020, too, the court cases and now the Electoral College vote bring one dramatic chapter to a close, but so much of this story is yet unwritten. I wonder: What did the more-than-100 members of the U.S. House who signed onto the Texas lawsuit really believe? More fundamentally, perhaps, what will become of the "baby" -- that is, our democracy? Has it been permanently damaged in the tussle? Moving forward from here, will the lying party and its supporters continue with the brazen lies, or repent, or recede into the dark recesses of history? What must we do in order to ensure that the baby remains alive and well, into the future, and to preserve the wisdom and justice of our courts?

In this season of miracles -- both then (the Maccabees) and now (a vaccine in record time!) -- we must have faith that anything is possible. But, in addition, this haftorah beckons to us... that we will all need to have a hand in writing the next chapter of this story.

May we do so in a way that honors our tradition, our values, and the great wisdom of Solomon! Wishing us all a happy end of Chanukah,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum