Haftarah Parashat Vayeshev
December 9, 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778
The prophets were particularly sensitive about protecting God’s honor. This is why idolatry, in particular, perturbed them. But “religious” betrayal of God was not limited to what we normally call “idolatry”. When Amos identified the “idolatrous” sins of the southern kingdom of Judah, this verse stands out: “[Ah], you who trample (hashoafim) the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course, father and son go to the same girl, and thereby profaned My holy name.” (2:7)
What make these sins idolatrous? After all, they do not seem to be directed on high. God has not been replaced by another deity. Clearly, the injustices mentioned in this verse are abuses founded in human relationships, as Rashi points out: And they trample on the dust of the ground that they walk on; all of their ambition (sheifatam) and all of their thoughts are on those who are weak and how they will steal and take from them. They force the poor to go out of the way [to avoid trouble] out of fear…” Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) adds color to this painful description: “[The powerful] place police over [the weak]. If the poor do not give what is demanded they take them by the hair of their heads, knock them to the ground and trample them… They pervert justice through bribery given by their rich adversaries…. The son is not embarrassed to consort with one whom his father has consorted… since you have profaned your holiness, you have profaned My holy name, for I sanctified you and you are called by My name – the holy people.”
Are the above-mentioned behaviors just sins which tarnish the sacred image of God’s people or are they more than that? Can we see in these acts a semblance of idolatrous behavior? These actions represent an abuse of power. “Trampling” on the poor, causing people to fear the ability to lead normal lives, taking advantage of power to satiate one’s appetites all constitute a form of idolatry: idolatry of self – life that is totally self-serving. In some sense this has always been the biggest threat to God and is certainly the biggest threat to God in modern times.
People are wont to classify these sins as religious. Sometimes, in fact, people justify these sins in the name of religion but it is clear to Amos that these sins are a betrayal of God not just because these actions are unjust but largely because those who abuse others with the miscarriage of power have ultimately set themselves up as an altar in place of God and there is no greater idolatry than that.
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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