Haftarah Parshat Vayetze (Hosea 12:13-14:10)
November 29, 2014 / 7 Kislev 5775
The writings of the prophets often make bleak reading. They examine the conditions which cause society to disintegrate and the repercussions of the destructive choices people and societies often make. This makes for colorful but painful reading. The underlying issues of Hosea’s prophetic critique of his society in some sense also rings modern, or should I say, eternally Jewish. Hosea associates the downfall of the northern kingdom, Israel, with disloyalty to God. This message is expressed in an obscure verse in this week’s haftarah: “You are undone, O Israel! You had no help but Me.” (13:9 – NJPS translation)
Translations are a wonderful thing! The translator, by virtue of his or her task, is obligated to make sense of the verse being translated. In this case, at least, the above translator warns us in his notes that the verse translated above is obscure. (see Tanakh, pp. 1295-6) Rashi makes sense of it this way: “You have harmed yourself, Israel, for you have sinned against Me; against your Help (namely, God) you have rebelled.” Rashi, however, tempers his interpretation with these words: “This verse is terse. One who understands the language of Scripture, its message will settle in his heart.” The brevity mentioned by Rashi is made up for in the Targum Yonathan, the Aramaic translation of the Prophets: “When you act destructively, O House of Israel, the nations shall rule over you, but when you return to My Torah, I will be your help.” Both of these commentators read this verse as a reminder to Israel that their relationship with God is a reciprocal one which requires Israel’s loyalty.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra makes this idea explicit: “You were destroyed, Israel, for I was your Help (God), and I (God) thought that I would not leave you, but once your started serving idols, I left you and you were destroyed.” (A second version of his commentary as related by one of his students)
Hosea’s intention in this message was not simply to record the failings of the community in a given age. He intended for its message to resonate with all those who would hear this litany of human failure. Rebbeinu Nissim of Gerona (14th century Catalonia) contextualized the meaning of this verse when he noted that this verse was spoken in a message which called for his nation’s repentance. Hosea offered his compatriots the option of returning to God and mending their ways, or, as noted in this verse, being alienated from God and overcome by disaster: “God wanted in this [verse to inform people that] the greatest help that He gave to them was service to God – its intention was for their good, and the wicked have nobody to blame for their destruction other than themselves, for [they were warned but] they still left the Torah.” (See Drashot HaRan 6, Feldman ed. p. 98 – adaptation)
Life is a matter of alternatives. Being aware of this fact and choosing right makes all of the difference. Hosea could give no greater gift than this reminder.