December 7, 2012 / 23 Kislev, 5773
The first literary prophet, Amos of Tekoa, opens our Haftarah for Vayeshev with a scathing indictment of the total corruption rampant in Israel: "For three transgressions of Israel, but for four I will not revoke my judgment against Israel."
Amos travels from the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel to harshly denounce Israel's immorality, their religious and social corruption and economic oppression of the poor. He announced that it is so obvious that Israel will be punished that he has no choice but to prophesy against them: "King Jeroboam will be killed and your land will be divided by foreigners as their possession"(7:9ff).
Some say our Haftarah is related to the Torah portion because of the indictment: "they sell the "tzaddik" for silver." In our sedra, Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery. The Rabbis who established our Torah-Haftarah relationships for us today describe Joseph frequently in the Midrash as as Yosef HaTzaddik.
Others suggest that the incident of Judah and Tamar is paralleled in the Haftarah by Amos: "Father and son go to the same girl, and they they profane My holy name."
In either case, this was a dangerous path of prophecy. Amos apparently took a real risk denouncing Israel's monarch, priests and upper classes.
How serious were the sins and crimes of which Amos accuses the upper classes of Israel? The innocent are literally sold for bribes, whether for money or just for the value of peasant sandals. The poor are the victims of the wealthy; they are "ground into dust" beneath the feet of the corrupt upper classes. The upper classes are hypocrites, fathers who mislead their children. Religious hypocrisy is wide-spread, and miscreants then "atone" to God with sacrifices paid for with their ill-gotten gain rather than from their own pockets. These "leaders" literally force God's own sincere people, the Nazirites and the prophets, to violate their own principles and values.
Amos is warned by the royal authorities to stop prophesying. He is told to return home and be a prophet if he wishes - but in in his own country. He is very unwelcome in Israel, and his message is even more unwanted. Ultimately Amos and his prophecies are rejected.
Then how did Amos succeed in his mission? How did Amos - who describes himself as a simple farmer, someone who tends sycamore tree - survive as a "stranger in a corrupt land?"
Let's imagine the following speculative scenario, shades of the Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park.
Amos begins speaking in the public square by denouncing Israel's enemies in Damascus, reviewing all of their crimes against the Jewish People. "For three sins of Damascus I might have forgiven, but for the fourth time I will destroy them." The crowd gathers and their emotions and anger are with Amos.
I can just imagine the populace growing and truly delighting in a harangue against Damascus. I can hear them joining in with encouraging comments, with applause and cheers. Others hear the tumult and come to see this spectacle and participate.
Amos then turns on Gaza and castigates them for their crimes against Israel. He continues to use his rhetorical formula "for three,. . . but for four..." to the accompaniment approval and hurrahs. The crowd grows larger as Amos outlines the sins and crimes of Tyre with his now familiar formula "for three,.... but for four..." they will be punished severely. He has the crowd in the palm of his hand. Amos then moves on to censure Edom, Ammon and Moab who are hated because of their ancestral closeness to Israel; they should have acted like brothers and cousins instead of vicious enemies stabbing Israel in the back.
However, the crowd is delighted to hear about the downfall of their enemies, even their kinsmen. Amos then turns to delineate the failings of Judah, their brethren in the southern kingdom. They continue to cheer now so caught up in the excitement of imminent divine punishment on the nations on their borders.
Without warning, Amos turns on Israel also. Our Haftarah begins, "For Israel's three transgressions I might have been forgiving, but it's just too much; and I will not take Israel back." Israel suddenly realize they are now cheering their own destruction, hearing and applauding a litany of their own crimes; at the least, they have ignored the wrongs of their society and they were cheering their own destruction.
This sophisticated rhetoric should cause us to ask: was Amos really a country bumpkin pressed into prophetic service or was he an inspired, skilled and gifted orator?
On the other hand, does it make a difference? His message of social justice paired with sincere religiosity is apparently as valid to the world of our ancestors then as today to us and our society.
This week's Haftarah commentary was written by Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner. Rabbi Lerner is retired from the pulpit and is the Rav HaMakshir of Traditional Kosher Supervision, Inc. serving Greater Philadelphia. He just accepted a position as adjunct instructor for C-CAP and the Philadelphia school system for future students in culinary and hospitality professions. He has been teaching for many years for Gratz College JCHS and is now also a Branch Director. He continues to provide as a public service free downloads for the Jewish Calendar Cycle and Life Cycle materials from www.JewishFreeware.org.
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