In Israel: July 12, 2003
In The Diaspora this is the Haftarah
The second part of this week’s haftarah uses the image of a courtroom scene to express God’s indignation at the people of Israel’s ingratitude and disloyalty toward Him. God confronts His people in adversarial fashion with God’s natural creations serving as witnesses to the confrontation. God opens his confrontation with these words: “O My people, what wrong have I done to you (mah asiti lecha)? And what hardship have I caused you (umah heleteecha)? Testify against me.” (Micah 6:3 New JPS translation)
This translation, which follows the pshat interpretation (plain meaning) of this verse, is an example of parallelism – the poetic Biblical tendency to repeat the same idea more than once using synonymous language. However this translation differs from other earlier interpretations. Targum Yonathan (7th century) translates this verse: “O My people, what good did I say that I would do for you that I have not done or what great afflictions have I multiplied upon you? Testify against Me.” Similarly, Rashi interprets “mah asiti lecha” as something positive rather than negative: “Pay attention to the good that I have done for you… And what trouble have I cause you in my service?” Both of these commentators make a concerted effort to avoid redundancy. They assert that God wants Israel to be cognizant of both the good that has been done for them as well as the hardship that they have been spared.
What caused these commentators to depart from what seems to be the pshat meaning of the text? Neither of them sees this as a departure from the pshat because their interpretations seem to fit the context of the continuation of Micah’s message which emphasizes what God has done for them: “In fact, I have brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…” (verses 4-5)
In the following midrash the rabbis use the contextual approach, found in the later interpretations, to completely revise the meaning of the later part of verse 3. In the other interpretations, “umah heleteecha” signifies burdens which God has refrained from imposing on the children of Israel. Here it represents things which people might think of as burdens but turn out to be blessings: “[What is the meaning of] ‘what hardship have I caused you in my service?’ – Said Rabbi Berechiah: ‘This can be compared to a king who sent his representatives to a country and all of the people stood in their honor and served then with fear, awe, trembling, and toil. So, too, the Holy One blessed be He said to the children of Israel: ‘I sent to you three representatives: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Have they eaten your food? Have they stolen beverages from you? Have they troubled you? Isn’t it because of their merit that God provides for you? Manna – through the merit of Moses; Water – through the merit of Miriam; the clouds of glory which protect you on your journey – through the merit of Aaron.”
The midrash continues on a similar note: “Said Rabbi Isaac: ‘This can be compared to a king who issues a new decree to his country. What did the people do? They stood on their feet, uncovered their heads and they read the pronouncement with trepidation and fear. So, too, the Holy One blessed be He said to the children of Israel: ‘My pronouncement [the Shema Yisrael], I did not overly trouble you with it [like the king in the parable]. I did not ask you to read it standing nor did I ask you to uncover your heads but rather when you “sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” (adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 27:6)
The leadership imposed upon the people might seem like a burden but it also provided for all of their needs. The recitation of prayers at fixed times might seem like a burden, but it is also that inspiration upon which Jewish life is based. Everything in life is a matter of perspective.
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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