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Haftarah Parashat Vayetse

Haftarah Parashat Vayetse
November 17, 2018 | 9 Kislev 5779
Hosea 12:13-14:10

Hosea’s message, like that of many prophets, vacillates between castigation and encouragement. One might read this as some kind of intentional “good cop / bad cop” act, but it more likely reflects a wrestling within God between the desire to hold Israel accountable and the desire to encourage teshuva. In other words, it reflects the competing impulses of Din/Judgement and Rachamim/Mercy.

This latter idea is captured rhetorically in this statement by God [translated based on input from Rashi and Ibn Ezra]: “From Sheol I would have redeemed them, from death I would have saved them. Where, O death are your plagues; your pestilence, O Sheol? Consolation will be far from My eyes.” (13:14) While in a previous prophecy God asserts the profound idea that God will overlook wrongdoing out of love for His subjects, here, God has seemingly closed the doors to reconciliation. The fate of the northern kingdom has been sealed.

As quoted above, this verse is voiced by God whose anger is aimed at Israel. Midrash Tanchuma (composed in the Land of Israel in the 6-7th century) however, places this same verse in the mouth of Yaakov, the representative of the Jewish people, as he addresses Esav, who the rabbinic tradition associates with Rome:

And in the world to come, when the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to exact retribution from Esav, what [will] Esav do? Wrapped in a prayer shawl like an elder, he comes and takes his seat beside Yaakov…

Esav will try to draw close to Yaakov. But Yaakov will challenge him, saying:

“My brother, you shall not be like me. Thus it is stated (in Hosea 13:14), ‘My brother, your words are death; my brother, your descent is to Sheol (The netherworld)'”

This reading requires some incredible rabbinic linguistic acrobatics. By changing a heh to a chet, the word אֱהִ֨י (where) becomes אחי (my brother). דְבָרֶיךָ֜ (your plagues) is re-read as דבריך (your words). And קָֽטָבְךָ֙ (pestilence) is read as “descent” because of a Greek word meaning “descend” that sounds similar! Yaakov then continues:

You decreed two-edged decrees against me, that I should serve idols. If I had done so, I would have been condemned to death at the hands of Heaven; and if I had not served them, you would have killed me. Ergo (in Hosea 13:14), “my brother, your words are death.” When Esav descends to Sheol, Yaakov will remain by himself… (Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav, Siman 2)

Although Esav/Rome will try to play buddy-buddy with Israel, neither Israel nor God will forgive the centuries of abuse and coercion.

Historically, Jews lacked the power to resist Rome publicly. As the midrash says, those who did were often killed. This midrash was a form of literary resistance – a way for the Sages to reassure the common Jew that their oppressors would ultimately be cast down. And this would have to be enough to sustain them as a minority in the midst of a coercive majority. Despite our no longer facing religious coercion, the challenge nevertheless remains for us to maintain our faith, even when Esav’s methods have changed.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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