Haftarah Parshat Vayeshev (Amos 2:6-3:8)
December 24, 2016 / 24 Kislev 5777
The second prophecy of this week’s haftarah confronts a Jewish theological issue which has perpetually proven provocative – the idea of “chosenness”. Amos has a very interesting take on this concept: “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.” (3:2) On the one hand, it would seem from Amos’ words, “chosenness” is independent of a shared experience. As we have learned elsewhere in Amos’ prophecies, God has redeemed other peoples as well as the people of Israel. The love between God and Israel is sui generis. God simply chose to love them from among the nations. This love was intended to be reciprocal and included joint responsibility. What is conceptually distinctive and is often overlooked in this relationship is the content of the second clause of the sentence, namely, that this intimate relationship did not bring with it immunity, but, rather, added liability. God expects His “chosen people” to maintain His standards strictly without exception. (S. Paul, Amos, Mikra L”Yisrael, pp. 56-7)
The following Talmudic anecdote illustrates the unusual nature of Amos’s position: “Rabbi Abahu praised Rav Safra to the Minim (well-connected heretics) as a learned man, and [on account of it] he was exempted by them from paying taxes for thirteen years. One day, on coming across him, they (the Minim) said to him: ‘It is written: You only have I known [or loved] from all the families of the earth; therefore, I will visit upon you all your iniquities’ (Amos 3:2); if one is in anger does one vent it on one’s friend?’ But he was silent and could give them no answer, so they wound a scarf round his neck and tortured him. When Rabbi Abahu came and found Rav Safra [in this state], he said to them: ‘Why are you torturing him?’ They replied: ‘Did you not tell us that he is a great man? Yet, he cannot explain to us the meaning of this verse!’ Rabbi Abahu replied: ‘I may have told you [that he was learned] in Tannaitic (rabbinic) teaching; but did I tell you [he was learned] in Scripture?’ [The Minim] responded: ‘How is it then that you (Rabbi Abahu) know it (Scripture)?’ ‘We,’ he replied. ‘who are frequently [in contact] with you, set ourselves the task of studying it thoroughly, but others (the Babylonian sages) do not study it as carefully.’ They said: ‘Will you then tell us the meaning [of the verse]?’ [Rabbi Abahu responded:] ‘I will explain it by a parable. To what may it be compared? To a man who is the creditor of two persons, one of them a friend, the other an enemy; of his friend, he will accept payment little by little, whereas from his enemy, he will exact payment in one sum!’” (Avodah Zarah 4a)
This story is fascinating from so many angles. It shows an early example of clergy tax exemptions and gives us a glimpse into what a confrontation between rabbis and heretics looked like in the mixed environment of Eretz Yisrael under Roman domination. More importantly for our purposes, the heretics ask Rav Safra a good question. One would assume that if God favors someone they would get preferential treatment rather than harsh treatment. Rav Safra is dumbfounded by the question since Babylonians were rarely confronted by these kinds of questions. Rabbi Abahu steps in to save the day and gives the heretics an answer which harmonizes between Amos’s intent and the question of the heretics.
His answer assuages the anger of the heretics who expect a sharp answer from someone who is a rabbi, but does it really capture Amos’ intention? Amos wanted his audience to know that loyalty to God is not about privilege. It is about responsibility. And as we learn from the heretics, responsibility is not a very popular commodity. Amos’ message, then, runs against the grain of popular expectations. It is not an easy sale, but for making the world a better place, it makes all the difference.