[I first wrote this musing 11 years ago. It saddens me that the questions it asks are still as (if not more) relevant today. Thus, I changed the title to update Ben Zoma’s question to ask “who is still wise?”]]
Eizeh Hu ḤaḤam?
Ben Zoma asks and answers this question in the Talmud (Pirke Avot 3:1) Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it is said in Torah,” from all my teachers I acquired understanding.” (Ben Zoma goes on to similarly define might, wealth, and honor in a similar vein.) This same question is asked, in different ways, throughout the Talmud and all of our sacred texts. What, exactly, is wisdom, and how does one acquire it? And how should one use it?
The Haftarah for parashat Miketz is the classic example of wisdom, or specifically, Solomonic wisdom, relating the well known exemplar of Solomonic wisdom. Two unmarried women living together (most likely prostitutes) give birth within a few days of each other. One claims that the other rolled over on her baby and killed it, and then switched it with the other. Each claim the living child is theirs. Shlomo HaMeleḥ (King Solomon) orders that a sword be brought forth so that the living child might be divided in half. One mother says “it should be neither yours nor mine, so cut it in two.” Of course, the true mother is the one who says to give the child to the other so it might live.
Shlomo relies on his understanding of a mother’s connection with her own child. And when the people of Israel learned of his great wisdom, they accept him as their King. Just being a son of David was not enough to insure Solomon’s acceptance as King by all the people.
[Consider that I wrote what follows 10 years ago. How apropos they now seem.]
It’s a wonderful illustration of using wisdom to bring about justice. And it resonates well with the human experience. Would this Solomonic wisdom work in all situations? It seems logical that it would, yet we know that situations are not always as they appear. There are many in the world who employ great deceits, and weave tangled webs. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many episodes of Law and Order.
It does seem to be a little harder these days to be sure that one party to a dispute is telling the truth and one is lying. Multiple truths, partial truths, conspiratorial deceptions abound. Where does one get the wisdom to discern wisely? As Ben Zoma said, we get it by learning from everyone. Yet, even armed with such awareness, are we truly prepared to render justice wisely?
[We are now living in what some as beginning to suspect is a “post-truth” age, where facts have little meaning, and truths are as people choose to define them. What would Solomon make of that, I wonder?]
Let’s take this to another level. In this day and time (though not entirely unique to our time) we Jews seem to question each other as to who the “true Jews” are. The differing sides each question whether the other hasn’t rolled over on their own child and stolen theirs, metaphorically speaking.
I have heard it seriously suggested by those from both liberal and traditional camps that we ought to just sever the child that is living Judaism in twain, each becoming a separate (yet ultimately dead) religion.
And many liberal Jews, uncertain of the legitimacy of their own claims, seem perfectly willing to turn the baby over to the traditionalists so that it might live. (Or perhaps so that they might live as they choose, and alleviate their guilt by assuring that somewhere out there are people who are being “real Jews.” Or perhaps acknowledging for themselves that they do not need the approval of the other side.
[Similarly, the future of the modern Jewish state of Israel is being debated. This is true in the diaspora, here in the US, and, of course, in Israel itself. Which mother is Israel in this scenario? It’s not all that clear to me. Both sides could make the case. It seems easy to argue that the two-state solution is splitting the child in half. However, it’s just as easy to argue that a single-state solution is more likely to lead to the death of the experiment that is modern Israel. I will openly admit to being in the latter camp, and fear Israel’s leaders, and its followers here in the US, are not being very Solomonic in their thinking. Yes, giving up land for peace hasn’t necessarily given the desired result, but it has allowed the baby to continue living.]
Yet perhaps there is a basic misconception here (pun intended.) Each side feels that the other has rolled over on their own child and is attempting to steal theirs. Yet I know that on both sides are many (if not a vast majority) who would willingly turn the baby over to the other so that it might live.
We need to ask ourselves a few questions before we can even attempt to solve this dilemma with anything akin to Solomonic wisdom.
1. Is only one child alive? 2. Was there ever really two children? 3. If there were two, and one died, how did it die? 4. Can one child be shared between two mothers?
[5. Is the Solomonic approach always the best choice? 7. Can a Solomonic approach help us determine truths in our own time? Could a Solomonic trick be used to ferret out truths about things like global warming, discrimination, misogyny, et al? 7. Who among us today is wise enough to apply a Solomonic test to determine facts and truths?]
Have at it, my Solomonic friends. And remember that a good place to start is with Ben Zoma’s wise words. Go and learn from everyone.
©2016 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Miketz 5776 – Coke or Pepsi? (Or…?)
Miketz 5775 – Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz 5774 – To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Miketz 5773 – B’li Meilitz
Miketz 5772 – A Piece of That Kit Kat Bar
Miketz 5771-What’s Bothering…Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 – Redux 5763 – Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation