This past Shabbos, for the first time in twenty years, we read the haftarah of Parshas Mikeitz, which usually comes out on Shabbos Chanukah. The haftarah contains one of the most well-known stories about Shlomo Hamelech. At some point or another, every one of us has heard the story of the two mothers who came before Shlomo Hamelech with a dispute. Each woman had a newborn baby and one of them had inadvertently lied on her baby while sleeping and suffocated him. What did she do? She exchanged babies with her friend, placing her dead baby in the sleeping arms of her friend while taking the live baby for herself.
When the real mother awoke and discovered a dead baby in her arms, she immediately realized that it was not her baby. An argument escalated until they agreed to go before Shlomo Hamelech. They presented their arguments. “My son is alive and yours is dead,” exclaimed one. “No! Your son is dead and mine is alive!” said the other.
What did Shlomo Hamelech do? He asked for a sword and proclaimed, “Fine! I will cut the baby in two and give a half to each.” As we all know, the real mother could not bear the thought of her child being slain and cries out, “Give her the living child and by no means slay him.” The other one said, “Let it be neither mine nor yours. Divide (it).”
In that instant, Shlomo Hamelech recognized that the woman who has such rachmanus on the child must be the rightful mother.
We had not read this haftarah in twenty years, but for many, these words are recited every week. Rav Avrohom Ibn Ezra wrote a zemirah that is sung by many on Friday night. Called “Tzamah Nafshi L’Elokim,” it is a deep piyut that the Chasam Sofer would sing every Friday night right after Aishes Chayil. The Chasam Sofer writes that this tremendously deep song was certainly written al pi Kabbolah and with ruach hakodesh.
Those who sing this zemirah encounter the incident with Shlomo Hamelech not every twenty years, but every Friday night.
The Topsy-Turvy World
The Ibn Ezra writes, “Re’eih l’giveres, shifcha no’emes. Lo, ki bineich hameis ubini hachei – Look at the shifcha, the maidservant [one of the mothers, alluding to the nations of the world], who tells the true mother [alluding to Am Yisroel], ‘Your son is dead and my son is alive!’”
The Ibn Ezra bemoans our golus situation. He bemoans the fact that the nations of the world are trying to convince us that “their son” is “alive,” while “our son,” the son of the real mother, is “dead.”
What is the Ibn Ezra bemoaning? He is bemoaning the topsy-turvy world in which we live. A world that says that light is darkness and darkness is light. A world that says “living” means living like a goy with access to everything, every indulgence, every bit of information that the world has to offer. A world that says “death” means refraining from engaging in every aberration that the world has to offer, that “death” means deliberately closing off parts of the world that will negatively impact a person.
Sometimes, the lines between light and darkness are very blurred. Chazal tell us that Yovon epitomized choshech, darkness, even though the world claims that ancient Greece brought so much “light” to the world. Chazal deemed Greek philosophy to be darkness, not light, because anything that distances a person from closeness to Hashem is, by definition, darkness.
Sadly, often within our own frum community, these lines seem blurred as well. For many, “making it” means that you can do whatever you want, buy whatever you want, engage in whatever indulgence you want, and have unfiltered access to whatever information you want. That is called “making it” or “freedom.”
In Golus by Our Fellow Jews
I am reminded of a seminal essay that my great-grandfather, Dr. Nosson (Nathan) Birnbaum, wrote in 1919 called “In Golus bei Yidden – In Golus to our Fellow Jews.” He writes: “When it first occurred to Jewish minds that the outside world was all radiance, and that the Jewish world was all darkness, and therefore the light of the outside world must be brought in to dispel the darkness of traditional Jewry, that was when we first went into golus to our fellow Jews.
“At first, they still felt pity for us – those spreaders of light felt pity for us, poor unworldly, souls. But it did not take long before that pity turned to anger. Just think: We are going to make mentchen of them – doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and journalists – and they dare to object! They dare to be ungrateful!
“Do they care if our feelings are instinctively against it? What if our ancient faith refuses to believe in these new miracles? What if the gentiles, too, are beginning to tire of those “light carriers” of ours with their pompous, self-proclaimed ‘enlightenment’?
“Such wholesale objections are worthless to our ‘enlightened’ brethren. Not without reason are they the Jewish intelligentsia. There they sit exuding self-confidence, enveloped in a cloud of arrogance…
“They are the modern ones who know all about progress; another new invention, a trifle more politics, more amusements, more theories and hypotheses, and they will undoubtedly set the world straight. But we…who are we? Batlanim, weird, lazy, unworldly creatures, whose souls are occupied with strange problems such as spiritual growth and improvement…”
Differentiating Between the Shifcha and the Gevirah
Yes, in the golus in which we live, it is often hard to discern who is the “gevirah” and who is the “shifcha,” in the Ibn Ezra’s words. Sometimes it appears that the person immersed in Olam Hazeh is the gevirah and the person who prizes spiritual achievement and growth is the shifcha, subservient to a code of law and conduct that is “constraining.”
What I have noticed is that often, the shifcha has more self-esteem than the gevirah. We see people in our communities pompously riding around as if they own the world. On the other end, we see the shifchas among us, those who want to live a life of Torah, feeling inferior. They feel that they need to be mechazek themselves that they have taken the right path, that living in a small house or apartment and spending their days immersed in matters of spirit is takeh the real life, with what seems to be considered “machen ah leben” being the opposite.
Golus is tough. It can “fahr drei ah kup.” It often makes black seem white and white seem black.
That is perhaps why every stanza in the Ibn Ezra’s zemirah continues with the chorus “Libi uvsari yeranenu el Keil chai – My heart and yes my flesh as well sing to the living Hashem.”
The key to not being overtaken by the false “simcha” of those who think they “made it” is to realize how lucky you are not only in ruchniyus, but in gashmiyus as well.
Yes, there is nothing better for besari, for one’s flesh, i.e., one’s gashmiyus, than a life lived with meaning, the simcha of understanding a Gemara, the simcha of a seudas Shabbos replete with the oneg of Shabbos food, zemiros and divrei Torah.
There is no greater feeling than holding the steering wheel of life and being in charge rather than being a slave to the next fad that “everyone” is doing.
I am reminded of a wonderful song that I once heard. Composed by Rav Efraim Wachsman, the song explores from a Yiddishkeit perspective what is important and what is not important, what is bitter and what is sweet, what is appealing and what is disgusting, with the imperative of not getting mixed up. The chorus goes, “Vos iz vichtig und vos iz nisht, men tuhr nisht verren tzumisht – What is important and what is not, we must not get confused.” He then brings examples: “Zees iz ah yingele mit peyos, mi’us iz ah rasha mit falshe deios – Sweet is a child with long peyos, disgusting is a rasha with false ideologies…bitter is a twisted sevarah and sweet is a kezayis marror…”
Living with Hashem is ALIVE!
If there is one thing that we can take away from this once-in-twenty-years haftarah, it is “Beni hachai ubeneich hameis – My son is alive and your son is dead.” Our world of living with Hashem, seeing Hashem in every aspect of our lives, and realizing that living the ideals and the lifestyle that He wants is chai is life on the highest level. At the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are always thirsty for the next diversion, and always want more, regardless of what they have, are living a life of beneich hameis, a life of choshech.
Let there be light!
(Parts of this article are based on a thought in Kuntres Oz Nidberu.)