Haftarah Parshat Vayeshev (Amos 2:6-3:8)
December 5, 2015 / 23 Kislev 5776
Modern Jews have a problem with “chosenness”. What does it mean that God chose a particular people? Does it imply that the Jewish people are better? Does it mean that they get preferential treatment? Some are bothered that perhaps it implies chauvinism. The prophet Amos understood this status to imply that God holds His chosen to a different standard than other people: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth – that is why I call you to account for all your iniquities.” (3:2)
Rabbi David Kimche spells out what this might mean: “Since I know you and chose you from among the nations, I pay particular attention to your sins because you saw and know My signs and wonders that I did on your account. This is why I hold you accountable for your sins. [This is] just like a king who becomes more angry with the servants who stand near him if they transgress his command than with those who stand far away.” (adapted)
This “chosenness” has, at times, been used as a weapon to torment the Jews. In the following story, we see just such an instance: Rabbi Abahu commended Rav Safra to the Minim (those who have in some way broken with the Jewish faith. AThese people also apparently controlled the tax rolls) as a learned man, and he was thus exempted by them from paying taxes for thirteen years. One day, on coming across him, they (the Minim) said to him: “It is written: ‘You only have I known [or loved] from all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities’ (Amos 3:2); if one is in anger does one vent it on one’s friend?” But he was silent and could give them no answer; so they wound a scarf round his neck and tortured him. When Rabbi Abahu came and found him [in that state] he said to them, “Why do you torture him?” They responded to him: “Did you not tell us that he is a great man? He cannot explain to us the meaning of this verse!’ He said to them: “I may have told you [that he was learned] in Tannaitic teachings (Rabbinic learning); did I tell you [he was learned] in Scripture?’ They said to Rabbi Abahu: “Why are you different that you know it?” He said to them: “We, who live amongst you (Minim), set ourselves the task of studying it (Scripture) thoroughly [in order to respond to your questions], they (Sages in Babylonia) do not study it as carefully [since they have no need to respond to their neighbor’s questions].” They said to Rabbi Abahu: “Will you then tell us the meaning?” “I will explain it by a parable”, he replied. “To what may it be compared? To a man who is the creditor of two persons, one of them a friend, the other an enemy; of his friend he will accept payment little by little, whereas of his enemy he will exact payment in one sum!” (Avodah Zarah 4a)
The Jews who lived in Eretz Yisrael in Talmudic times were faced by heretics (perhaps early Christians) who both governed over the Jews and frequently attempted to provoke the Jews with questions. The local sages were prepared for this, but sages from Babylonian were not. The heretics challenged the logic of Amos’ statement, since the assumption is that the “chosen” should get preferential treatment. This question caught Rav Safra, the Babylonian, off guard. Rabbi Abahu, the local, knew how to tweak the verse so as to answer the question in a playful manner in order to tease the questioner.
For Amos, “chosenness” meant extra responsibility for one’s behavior. However, as we can see, when the prophet’s message was used as a weapon against the Jewish people, Rabbi Abahu creatively reinterpreted it. Amos’s message is still relevant today, but so is the need to be vigilant against those who would misuse it.