May 7, 2005
The prophet\’s task was not an easy one. People are not eager to realize their faults. Nor are they readily willing to understand the implications or the consequences of their actions, neither on an individual level and nor on a personal level. For the Jewish tradition, however, from the very outset, this causal reality has been a guiding principle, indeed, a principle of faith. Time and time again, the prophets attempted to inculcate this idea among the people. Amos was no exception: \”All the sinners of My people will perish by the sword, who boast, \’Never shall the evil overtake us (lo tagish) or come near us (velo takdim baadenu haraah).\’\” (Verse 10)
For Amos, the wicked are those who incriminate themselves by claiming that there will be no repercussions for their wrongdoings. The claim of the wicked can be understood two different ways. Most commentators interpret this verse as it has been translated above, namely, that the wicked deny that their evil will ultimately overtake them. It is also possible, however, to translate this verse in a more theologically biting fashion, that the wicked deny that God will cause their evil to overcome them. This obviously makes their denial all the more provocative. (See Shalom Paul, \”Amos\”, Mikra L\’Yisrael, p. 143)
A midrash, found in the Tanhuma (Eretz Yisrael, 7-8th century), incorporates this verse into the redemption history of the Jewish people when it states: \”If they repent, everything will be good, but if they don\’t, the following verse will be fulfilled: \’In this very desert, they will be obliterated to the very last.\’ (Numbers 14:35) No person should say, \’It was not because of me that this trouble came\’, as it says: \’All the sinners of My people will perish…who said: Never shall the evil overtake us or come near us.\’\” (Bahar, 3)
The Tanhuma realizes that such people close the door on themselves and to God by denying their own responsibility for their actions. This denial makes it impossible for them to change and fix the wrong that they have committed. As a consequence teshuva or repentance is impossible for them and restoration and redemption are beyond reach. If, however, their attitude changes, so will their situation. Perhaps this is why the claim of the wicked is juxtaposed, in Amos, with the first verse of his final prophecy: \”In that day, I will set up the fallen booth of David: I will mend its branches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in days of old…\” (Verse 8) When people are ready to take responsibility for their actions and note the consequences of what they do, then and only then, will there be the possibility of redemption.
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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