May 3, 2008
28 Nisan 5768
Amos, among the earliest of the classical prophets, stands fast in firmly expressing the message of religious accountability. He reminds those around him that they should not take Jewish distinctiveness as a sign of a preferred status which will buy them a respite from responsibility for their actions. He warns them that God views them no differently from distant nations and no differently from their intimate adversaries: \”To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians – declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.\” (Verse 7) The Israelites, too, must reckon with the results of their behavior. God also calls them to account: \”Behold the Lord God has his eye upon the sinful kingdom: I will wipe it off the face of the earth! But I will not wholly wipe out the House of Jacob – declares the Lord.\” (Verse 8)
Of course, the message does not end here. Amos breaks this painful crescendo of accountability with a message of a day when redemption and hope will reign: \”In that day, I will set up again the fallen booth of David: I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew, I will build it firm as in days of old.\” (Verse 12) Prophetic messages always waver between the extremes of accountability and redemption in the hope of prodding the nation\’s citizens to build God\’s ideal society.
This same attitude is reflected in the following midrash in which God takes account of the fate of His Holy Temple: \”Rabbi Berechiah taught: At the very beginning of His creation of the earth, the Holy One Blessed be He set up a booth in Jerusalem, and as it were, He (God) would pray there: \’May it be willed that My children will follow My will, so that I will not need to destroy My House and Sanctuary. After His House was destroyed [on account of sin,] He would pray: \’May it be willed that My children will do teshuva (repent) so that I may bring close once again the building of My House… Another interpretation: When will God\’s name be known in Judah? When He will again build His booth (the Temple) as it says: \’ In that day, I will set up again the fallen booth of David\’.\” (Adapted from Midrash Tehillim 76:3 Buber ed. pp. 341-2)
This extraordinary midrash envisions God praying(!) over Israel\’s fate, imploring them to act in a way that might warrant Him to reestablish His House in their midst. God links their behavior to their national fate. It is striking how much responsibility both Amos and this midrash put in human hands. Despite human frailty and fallibility, Judaism is not a religion that shirks human responsibility. The ideal may always be slightly beyond us, but it would be antithetical to the prophetic spirit for whatever reason to disregard the struggle.