Haftarah Parashat Vayeshev
Shabbat Mevarekhim Hahodesh
December 1, 2018 | 23 Kislev 5779
Amos, the earliest of the literary prophets, opens his prophetic message with prophecies concerning the nations along with similar prophecies about Israel and Judea. In chapter 3, his prophetic message changes directions. His earlier “universalism” turns particularistic when he focuses on Israel’s “chosenness” and his role as a prophet for the “chosen people.” Amos’ idea of chosenness is not what one might expect: “Hear this word, O people of Israel, that the Lord has spoken concerning you, concerning the whole family that I have brought out of Egypt: You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth, that is why I call you to account for all of your iniquities.” (3:1-2)
This prophecy deserves unpacking. How was one to understand the significance of the redemption from Egypt? Was this defining moment a merit which foreshadowed a future redemption for a beloved people, or did it creat a debt owed to God? Amos’ answer is clear. He argued against the presumption that the redemption from Egypt conferred privilege. Rather, according to Amos, the larger lesson of chosenness invokes both responsibility and liability. (S. Paul, Amos, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 56)
The medieval commentators examine the exact nature of this association. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain 11th century) see this as an issue of gratitude: “I (God) saved you from your troubles and you betrayed Me. It is the way of the king to be angry with those who stand before him more than with others.” Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) attributes the prophet’s painful association between the redemption and accountability to the people’s failure to have a sense of wonder at the miraculous: “You (the children of Israel) saw and discerned My (God’s) signs and wonders that I did for you and made good for you, therefore it is only just that I hold you accountable for your sins.
Underlying both of these interpretations is the idea that chosenness is presumed to imply preferred treatment. If so, what went wrong? What poisoned the relationship between the people and God that this equation changed, prompting Amos to link it instead with accountability? For both, the answer boils down to a sense that privilege and special treatment sometimes lead people to become blind to the obligations that come along with privilege. Amos sought to remind his fellows to remember where they came from and who brought them to the blessings they now enjoyed and to live their lives accordingly.
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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