Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha: Divide The String, Not The Child
I remember being a small child, about 6 years old, when two relatives of mine were arguing over a piece of string. Each one wanted it, and as the argument got louder, the father came to settle the dispute. After hearing each one state their desire for the string, the father said that he would cut the sting in half.
One child said, "Ok, I can accept that."
The second child said, "NO! Forget it – I don’t want it then."
As I watched, the father said, "We will follow the wise ruling of Shlomo Hamelech," and he proceeded to tell the famous story of Shlomo Hamelech and the baby – and awarded the entire thread to the child who had rejected the compromise.
I was 6, but I knew this was wrong. Something didn’t make sense here at all. For those who don’t know, I will quickly relate the story of Shlomo HaMelech and the infant:
Shlomo had been recently crowned as the new king. Meanwhile, two women were staying at an inn and each one gave birth to a baby. At night, one mother accidentally rolled over onto her child, killing him. The next day both woman each claimed the living child was theirs, and since there was no one who could verify the claim, they ultimately came before the king for a ruling.
Here is the sequence (Melachim I, 3:24-28):
And the king said, "Fetch me a sword." And they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, "Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other. And the woman whose son (was) the live one, said to the king, for her compassion was aroused for her son, and she said, "O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means slay him." But the other said, "Let it be neither mine nor yours, divide (it)." And the king answered and said, "Give her the living child, and by no means slay him: she (is) his mother." And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king; for they saw that the wisdom of G-d (was) in him to do judgment.
Now this is the wisest king who ever lived, but does anyone think that it was a bright idea to cut the baby in half? No woman would have agreed to this, and no sane, decent & humane king would propose it. So what does it mean?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe asked this question in a letter, and he answered: Shlomo did not mean they should physically cut the child in two – the sword was symbolic, his proposal idea was to cut the child emotionally in half: The child should spend half the time with one woman and the half the time with the other.
Now the story makes a little more sense. The real mother, Shlomo knows, cares about the child’s wellbeing more than herself – as selflessness is the singe defining quality of a mother (as we discussed here) – while the non-mother thinks only of herself , "at least I will have a child half of the time." Thus, Shlomo awarded to the child to the real mother – she had understood that do to so, would be tantamount to slaying the infant.
The story of Shlomo Hamelech and the baby bothered me for many years; even when I was a young boy, Shlomo’s proposal seemed to make no sense – but in light of this explanation it is completely logical, and indeed a brilliant ruling.
However, when it’s applied to two kids arguing over a piece of string, you lost me. It strikes me as a common problem – people misapply religiosity, completely inversing the logic. How many times do people take a Torah anecdote or religious idea and apply to a scenario ending up with the exact opposite of the original intent? How important it is for us to understand the nimshal, and to look a little deeper than the surface. When we misunderstand the underlying meaning we end up punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty.
It’s been about thirty years since that story with the string; the unfairness of it bothered me then, and still bothers me now (I know, I know, I should really get over it already). The idea here is about selflessness – it doesn’t fit when we’re talking about a selfish child upset at not getting his way, while a fair minded child walks away with nothing… Odd, I bet none of the involved parties even remember it.