The Family You Choose - Haftarat Mikeitz

This week’s Haftarah is both well-known and rarely recited. It’s the Haftarah, the portion of the Prophets, that is associated with today’s Torah portion - but because this week’s portion usually coincides with Shabbat Ḥanukkah, we only get this Haftarah once every decade or so. Nevertheless, it is a well-known story: the narrative of Solomon, the king of United Israel whom the Divine bestows with legendary wisdom, encountering the Baby Dilemma. 

If you’re not already familiar with the story, it goes like this: there are two women before him in the court, and one baby. Both women claim to be the mother, and it’s up to Wise King Solomon to determine with whom the infant shall go home. So what is a wise king to do? Rather dramatically, he rules that the baby should be… divided. Horrified, one of the women cries out: ‘No, let her keep the child, just don’t hurt him.’ The other woman seems satisfied with the justice of the king’s solution. And so Solomon sends the infant home with the first woman, the one who cried out for his safety. 

This story is often used to illustrate Solomon’s wisdom. He can weed out the true mother by virtue of calling on her love for her child. However, for the first time this year - in encountering this narrative in relationship with our Torah reading - I have been inclined to read it a little differently.

See, the Torah portion we’ve just read is about Joseph re-encountering his brothers. Joseph was betrayed all those years ago. He was thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery. His biological siblings have proved themselves to be unworthy of familial, emotional relationship. Joseph has since been through much character growth, and he’s found people in his life to act as family. Joseph’s pharaoh found him as an imprisoned, dirty, foreign child, and saw something important in him. Joseph has since married, and he’s fathered his own children. These brothers of his childhood are biological ties, and nothing more. And so when they re-encounter one another, and the brothers fail to recognise Joseph, Joseph leaps at the opportunity to trick them. And his trick, his game with the threat of imprisoning poor young Benjamin, prods at the question of the emotional ties between the siblings. Have they changed? Will they protect the younger sibling, the way that they failed to protect Joseph? The biological relationship is established. The emotional relationship is in question. They are brothers - but are they going to act like brothers? 

Seeing the Haftarah in relationship with Joseph has changed the way that I see the text and the test, because it reminds us that biological relationships do not always result in love and care the way we would like them to. Sometimes, brothers sell each other into slavery. We happen to know, as readers of the Haftarah, that the woman who cries out to protect the child is described as being the child’s mother. But King Solomon does not have our insight. What King Solomon knows is that one woman will care for the child, and the other - the woman who expresses lack of care - is a danger to him. He does not know where the biological ties lie. But biology is not the entirety of the issue. If you centre the importance of the child, what matters is not which woman birthed him, but where he is safe. The test establishes that one woman cares for his safety and the other does not. That, I think, is Solomon displaying his great and legendary wisdom.

The tricks of Joseph and King Solomon are ultimately both about the place of emotional ties in familial relationships. Kindness, care, and protection are prized. Genetic ties are also important - all twelve sons will reunite, and the covenant will be passed down through them. But they are not primary. The families that we choose are just as important as those we are born into. The Jewish people know this, because we are an ethno-religion - a people whose status as a member of the tribe is passed down from mother to child - and we also accept converts as being adopted into the people. 

May we all be the woman who cries out to protect the child, whether or not they are our biological children. May we all act as brothers and sisters, even when the person standing before us looks like an Egyptian. And may we all learn to love and be loved like chosen family, even with the families who were chosen for us.


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