Haftarah Parshat Vayishlah (The Book of Obadiah)
December 17, 2016 / 17 Kislev 5777
The animosity between the nations of Israel and Edom is foreshadowed by Rebecca’s pregnancy, where the twins which she carried in her womb, Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom), were seemingly in perpetually at odds with each other. This image followed the two nations throughout their history until the demise of the nation of Edom and its ultimate assimilation into the Jewish people. (Herod the Great was the most famous Edomite turned Jew.) The book of Obadiah takes aim at the continuation of this animosity. It gives no explicit information about the events which prompted the prophecy, but most modern scholars place it in the period of the destruction of the First Temple, where the Edomites allied themselves with the Babylonians in destroying Jerusalem. It is no wonder that the prophecy is so fraught with anger.
Obadiah’s indictment of the acts which prompted this animus are contained in these words: “On that day when you stood aloof, when strangers carried away his belongings, and foreigners entered his gates, and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were as one of them. How could you gaze with glee on your brother that day, on the day of his calamity! How could you gloat over the people of Judah on that day of ruin! How could you loudly jeer on a day of anguish! How could you enter the gate of My people on its day of disaster! Gaze with glee with the others on its misfortune on its day of disaster and lay hands on its wealth on its day of disaster! How could you stand in the crossway, to cut off those of who escaped; How could you betray those who fled on that day of distress! (verses 11-14)
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain), master of “pshat” or the plain meaning of the text, viewed these words as a description of real events during the Babylonian conquest which the prophet had experienced, while Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) saw Obadiah’s prophecy as a vision of the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans, whom the Jews saw as Edom after the original Edomites no longer existed.
It is not a modern expectation of prophecy to express such anger and antipathy. Instead, we expect utopian words of kindness and comfort. The book of Obadiah reminds us that the real world is not so kind and that the “Edoms” of the world seem to pop up to dispute any idyllic picture. Unfortunately, this is wise prophetic advice.
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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