Parshat Ahrei Mot-Kedoshim
May 1, 2004
Rabbi Yitzchak Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish exegete and statesman, pointed out that most interpreters of this week’s haftarah divide it into two distinctive messages: the first part a rebuke (verses 7-12) and the second and final message one of consolation (verses 13-15). This division depends on interpreting its first verse as a criticism of the people of Israel: “To Me [God], O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians – declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up out of Egypt but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” According to this interpretation, Israel’s fate is like that of all other nations. Only the behavior of the nation will distinguish her from other nations. Consequently, God demands from Israel that which will make it the “holy nation” mentioned in Parshat Kedoshim. (see Rashi)
While it is likely that this interpretation is the one intended by Amos, not all of the medieval commentators are like-minded regarding how to interpret the metaphor found at the beginning of this verse. What is meant by the comparison between the Israelites and the Ethiopians? The answer to this question seems to have been influenced by historical and cultural factors. The sages from the rabbinic period tend to focus on the Ethiopian’s distinctive skin color to distinguish Israel’s unique behavior: “Just as an Ethiopian can be distinguished by the color of their skin, so, too, the Israelite can be distinguished by their deeds.” (Moed Katan 16b) Targum Yonathon, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the prophets, translates this term as “beloved children”, based on the fact that King Saul was known by the name “Kush”. The medieval European interpreters, in particular those living in the area of Spain used another metaphor based on the unsavory reality that Africans were being used in Europe as indentured slaves. Rabbi David Kimche (Provance 12th century) compares Israel to indentured servants, who are lifelong slaves. Similarly, he states, Israelites, whom God acquired by redeeming them from Egypt, should consider themselves God’s lifelong slaves.
Abrabanel uses this last metaphor to claim that the entire prophecy is one of consolation. He asserts that since people of Israel are God’s slaves, He will insure their security against their enemies.
A later authority, Rabbi Meir Malbim (Rumania 19th century) elaborates on the idea found in the Talmud. He concludes that the Israelites are treasured by God because they remain distinguishable and recognizable even when they are dispersed among the nations. The attributes which make them recognizable, namely the observance of the precepts of the Torah, cause all who see them to say that they are the children of the living God. This makes them particularly beloved by God. Jews should take pride in the source of this distinction.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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