1 Kings & Toledot: Bad Parents

Solomon reading from the Torah, North French 13th c.

King Solomon orders a living baby cut in half in the haftarah that accompanies this week’s Torah reading, Mikeitz.  It is his first act as a judge after God has granted him discernment between good and bad.

Two prostitutes who live in the same house come to him for judgment because they gave birth at about the same time, but one baby died in the night, and they do not agree on which of them is the mother of the living baby.  (See my post Haftarat Mikeitz–1 Kings: No Half Measures.)

Since there are no witnesses, King Solomon declares the baby will be cut in half and each claimant will get half a baby.  Then one woman begs him to save the baby’s life and give it to her adversary, while the other woman says dividing the baby is fair.  Solomon then awards the living baby (unharmed) to the woman who wants to save the baby’s life, and says she is the mother.

Whether she was the birth mother or not, she is the one who deserves to be a parent–because she who would rather save a child’s life than insist on her own legal rights .

This week, as I continue to compose my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I am writing about the blatant favoritism of the parents in the Torah portion Toledot.  In one scene, Rebecca disguises and instructs her favorite son, Jacob, so he can steal the blessing that Isaac wants to give his favorite son, Esau (Genesis 27:1-29).

The masquerade leads to one problem after another, and Jacob ends up fleeing to another country because Esau wants to kill him.  Neither Rebecca nor Isaac is as callous as the second prostitute in King Solomon’s case.  Rebecca never suggests anything that would physically harm Esau, and she chooses to lose her favorite son, Jacob, for an indefinite period of time in order to save his life.  Isaac, after blessing the “wrong” son, pronounces two more blessings, a blessing for Esau and a parting blessing for Isaac.

But both parents fail to ameliorate the psychological damage they did long ago by neglecting one son and lavishing attention on the other.  As the rest of Jacob’s life unfolds in the book of Genesis, he continues to feel unentitled, and to believe (like his mother) that he can only get what he wants through manipulation and deceit.

I think this is what the Torah means when it says God “visits the sins of the parents upon the children” (Exodus 34:7).  The punishment is built in; we are all handicapped to some extent because of our parents’ shortcomings.

Yet I believe that if we can examine our own histories, and work on discerning between good and bad like King Solomon, we can think of alternative choices for the future, and make life better for ourselves and our children and everyone around us.  May we all make it happen.

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