December 24, 2006
Amos, the earliest of the literary prophets, was an ardent foe of the corruption and immorality which were rampant during the prosperous years of the rule of Jeroboam II in Israel. For him, it was beyond understanding how God\’s \”chosen\” could so radically ignore their God-given responsibilities: \”Hear this word, O people of Israel, that the Lord has spoken concerning you, concerning the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt: You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth – that is why I call you to account for all your iniquities.\” (Amos 3:1-2)
This message acknowledges a special relationship between God and Israel, one with distinctive responsibilities and an unparalleled sense of accountability. Rabbi Joseph Kara (France, 11th century), a student and colleague of Rashi, attempted an explanation of this special relationship: \”Any person to whose sorrows I paid no attention or whose lot I did not better, if such a person were to sin against Me, I would not pay heed too much, but, you, House of Israel, whose troubles I have known… and for whom I have done good, and then you compensate Me with wrongdoing, that is why I take account of your iniquities.\” Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 11th century) added: \”servants are more aware of the habits of their king than those who live far from him, dwelling in villages.\”
Rashi offers a similar interpretation but also notes that the Talmud explains this verse differently in the following unusual episode: Rabbi Abahu introduced Rav Safra (a Babylonian sage) to the minim (sectarians, probably Jewish Christians who were apparently government officials) as a learned man, and he was thereby exempted from taxes for thirteen years. One day these sectarians, on meeting Rav Safra, said to him: \”It is written: \’You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth – that is why I call you to account for all your iniquities.\’ Does someone who is angry take out his anger against his beloved?\” Rav Safra remained quiet and did not answer them. These sectarians tied a kerchief around his neck and were causing him distress. Rabbi Abahu came and found them harming Rav Safra and said to them: \”Why are you causing him distress?\” They responded: \”Didn\’t you tell us that he is a great man? Yet he could not tell us the meaning of this verse. Rabbi Abahu retorted: \”When I told you that he was a great man, it was with regard to Tannaitic studies (the Oral Torah) but did I say he was a great man with respect to Scripture?\” They said to Rabbi Abahu: \”What is different about you [that you know Scripture]? He answered: \”We who are often in your company study Scripture in depth but they [who live in Babylonia] do not delve deeply into Scripture. The heretics said to Rabbi Abahu: \’So you tell us the meaning of this verse.\’ He said to them: \’I will explain to you using a parable: To what can this verse be compared? To a person who must collect debts from two people, one who is his friend and one who is his enemy. He collects the debt from his friend little by little whereas he collects the debt from his enemy all at once.\’ (Avodah Zara 4a)
Rav Safra\’s inability to answer the sectarians does not mean that he did not know Scripture. He simply did not know how to answer challenges from sectarians since Babylonians did not come into contact with them. Rabbi Abahu, who lived in Caesarea, was familiar with these sectarians and consequently knew how to debate with them. The sectarians wanted to prove that God no longer favored the Jews and joyfully picked up on Amos\’ prophecy to illustrate their point. Rabbi Abahu capably interpreted the verse to offset the challenge.
Both the challenge of the sectarians and Rabbi Abahu\’s interpretations veer from the plain meaning (pshat) of the text. Since the sectarian interpretation was meant to turn the text against the Jewish people, it was an unacceptable elucidation of Amos\’ message. Rabbi Abahu\’s ingenious interpretation was meant to turn their challenge on its head and make the verse into a challenge against these sectarians. He does this artfully. This little story is an excellent example of how the interpretation of Scripture is a combination of the original meaning of the text meshed with the contemporary experience of the interpreter. In this art, Rabbi Abahu was a nonpareil.