Parshat Achrei Mot – Kedoshim
(Amos 9:7 – 15)
May 5, 2001
Is the choice of this week’s Haftarah a counterpoint or a complement to the Torah reading? Parshat Kedoshim opens with the famous verse: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This verse seems to imply that the Jewish people occupy a unique status in the eyes of God. They are “ha’am hanevhar” – “the chosen people”. Moreover, there are those who argue that this status is intrinsic to every individual Jew, not only to the people as a whole.
The Haftarah opens with a verse which challenges the very basis of this idea: “To me, Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought you up from Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7).
Rashi understands this verse to be a rebuke. If we accept Rashi’s interpretation of this difficult verse, its message is that there is nothing quintessentially different about the Jewish people. God treats them the same as He treats other people. God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, but He also brought the Philistines out of Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir! Even a people geographically distant from Israel like the Ethiopians benefit from God’s concern. Consequently the Israelites should not assume that they will go unpunished for any wrongs they might do. Amos teaches that “chosenness” is not a gift but a responsibility.
How then are we to reconcile the Torah’s message which emphasizes Jewish uniqueness with the message of Amos that Jews are no different than any other people? Jewish uniqueness is not simply a matter of ethnic identity or bloodline. Rather, it results from the unique relationship between Jews and God, based on Torah and mitzvot. Amos’ message emphasizes responsibility for one’s own actions. This message is clearly inplied by Parshat Kedoshim with more than 50 mitzvot detailed in it. Jewish uniqueness is not a matter of shared fate. It is, rather, a potential destiny in which we all play a part. If our lives are not shaped by mitzvot, we undermine Jewish uniqueness. If our lives are shaped by mitzvot, we enhance it.