December 8, 2001
Amos begins his prophetic career with critiques of all of the nations which surrounded his native Judea. These are recorded in the Book of Amos prior to today’s haftarah. His prophecy concerning the northern kingdom of Israel, which opens the haftarah, offers a biting condemnation of the injustices of its judicial system. The sin which is utmost in his mind is described in the following words: “Thus said the Lord: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, for four, I will not revoke it: because they have sold for silver the just (tzadik) and the needy for a pair of sandals (na’alayim).’” (Amos 2:6)
This verse is the link between the parashah and the haftarah, though how it does so is not immediately apparent. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, captures the simple (pshat) interpretation of the first part of this verse in the following explanation: The judges would offer acquittals in exchange for bribes they would receive from the litigants. The second part of this verse proves more difficult to explain. Its simple meaning seems to parallel the explanation given by Rashi in the first part of this verse, namely, that the fate of poor litigants was sold for as little as the price of a pair of shoes. However, this explanation is not obvious to all of the commentators. Targum Jonathan offers an obscure translation which interprets the word “naalayim” as a verb which means “to seal a deal”. Rashi explains this translation as follows: “[this occurs when the judge] perverts justice so that the poor man will have to sell his field, [which the judge covets] since it stands between two properties owned by the judge. The judge [who wants his property to be contiguous], forces him to sell it at a low price so that he can fence in his entire property.” (adapted from Rashi) This interpretation, which seems forced, nevertheless captures the idea that the sin of the kingdom of Israel is judicial corruption.
The connection to the parashah is not to be found in the simple meaning of this verse. The following midrash, however, provides the link. “Joseph’s brothers were sitting together [after they had taken him and thrown him into a pit]. They were of one heart and one mind. When a caravan of Ishmaelites passed by, they said to each other: ‘Come let us sell our brother to the Ishmaelites and they will bring him to the other side of the desert and our father Jacob will never hear of him again.’ So they sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, each of them receiving two silver pieces, enough to buy a pair of shoes, as it is written: ‘on account of their having sold the righteous one and the poor for shoes’ (Amos 2:6)” (adapted from Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 37)
The verse from Amos is reinterpreted to refer to Joseph. He is the “righteous one” who has suffered an injustice at the hands of his brothers all for a pair of shoes. This interpretation has played an enormous role in the Jewish tradition. On Yom Kippur, this story serves as the basis of the liturgical poem, “Eleh Ezkarah”, which recounts the famous story of the ten sages of Talmudic times who were martyred by the Roman oppressors. In this poem, the story of Joseph’s having been kidnapped by his brothers for a pair shoes serves as a pretext for the punishment meted out against the sages as the living representatives of Joseph’s brothers. The rabbinic lesson learned from Amos is that the consequences of an act may reverberate for generations.
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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