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Va-Yeshev 5772

Haftarah Parshat Vayeshev
(Amos 2:6 – 3:8)
December 17, 2011
21 Kislev 5772

A sermon can only be understood by discerning the audience for which it was intended. The second prophecy in this week’s haftarah proves this point. It reminds the people of Israel that they are chosen from among the nations and that God singled them out for redemption from Egypt. This singularity brings with it, however, an unanticipated message: “Hear this word, O people of Israel, that the Lord has spoken concerning you; concerning the whole family that I brought up out of Egypt: You alone have I singled out of all of the families on earth – that is why I will call you to account for all of your iniquities.” (3:1-2) This prophecy bucks the conventional wisdom that the redemption from Egypt mechanically foreshadows the future redemption of the people just because they are God’s chosen. The audience for this message probably did not anticipate that chosenness might inply providential attention to the details of their behavior. This added to the bite in its message. (See S. Paul, Amos, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 56-7)

This message also had unanticipated consequences for a Babylonian sage who came to live in Caesarea: R. Abbahu praised R. Safra to the Heretics [who apparently controlled the local government] as a learned man, and they thereby exempted him from paying taxes for thirteen years. One day, the heretics came across R. Safra and asked him; ‘It is written: ‘You only have I (God) known [or loved] from all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities’. If one is in anger does one vent it on one\’s friend?’ But R. Safra was silent and did not answer; so they wound a scarf round his neck and tortured him. When R. Abbahu came and found him [being tortured], he asked them: ‘Why do you torture him?’ They replied: ‘Didn’t you tell us that he is a great man? He cannot even explain to us the meaning of this verse!’ R. Abbahu replied: ‘I may have told you [that he was learned] in Rabbinic studies; did I tell you [he was learned] in Scripture?’ The heretics asked: ‘How is it then that you know it?’ He replied. ‘We, who are frequently with you, set ourselves the task of studying it thoroughly, but others (Babylonian sages) do not study it as carefully.’ Well then’, they said: ‘Will you then tell us the meaning of this verse?’ ‘I will explain it by a parable,’ he replied. ‘To what may it be compared? To a man who is the creditor of two persons, one of them a friend, the other an enemy; of his friend he will accept payment little by little, whereas of his enemy he will exact payment in one sum!’ (Avodah Zarah 4b)

Rav Safra was not adept at the intricacies of Scripture because he was Babylonian. There, the neighbors did not challenge the Jews with provocative questions concerning the Bible like the non-Jews of Caesarea. In Babylonia, halacha – Jewish law – was the focus of their studies. Rabbi Abbahu, however, a lived in an environment full of religious ferment and was able to fashion an answer for the heretics.

The question of the heretics, however, remains. They cannot fathom that if God is our “friend”, He should punish us. Rabbi Abbahu accommodates them with an answer to this illusive question, but the crux of their question remains because they misunderstand Amos’ point. His intent was that people should not assume that membership in an exclusive club buys them an exemption from leading a responsible life. On the contrary, Israel’s chosenness warrants added attention not less attention. Amos assures us that God’s care is not a carte blanche. Neither is “real” friendship.

About This Commentary

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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