Haftarah Parshat Vayeshev
December 8, 2012
24 Kislev 5773
Was there such a thing as a prophetic agenda? A quick look at the prophet Amos’ opening plaint against the nation of Israel in this week’s haftarah might give us a clue. He criticizes the nation for “selling the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6) and continues with a harsh but obscure denunciation: “[Ah], you who trample (Hasho’afim) the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground.” (2:7 NJPS translation) Clearly, the prophet is concerned with the blatant oppression of the poor and the weak of his society but what might this latter rebuke refer to? [Just a note: The translation above is not literal. One will understand it better after the discussion below.]
The difficulty in this verse centers on the meaning of the word “Sho’afim”. The root of this word is “Shin Aleph Peh” but there seem to have been two words with this root, one meaning “desire or aspire” and the other meaning “trample”. (S. Paul, Amos, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 49) Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, seems to have adopted the first meaning, rendering the verse: “that shows contempt for the heads of the impoverished as if they were the dust of the earth and perverts the judgment of the poor.” Rashi seems to want to wade his way between these two possibilities: “they trample on the dust of the earth – they walk on it (the dust), all of their (the sinners) desires and their thoughts are on those who are without strength, how to steal from them and take what is theirs.” Similarly, Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) paints an even more awful picture of the nation’s oppressive officialdom, again playing on both definitions: “The judges desire, look and intend that the dust of the earth will be on the heads of the poor. They set up officials over them. If the poor do not give the requisite [bribes], the officials take them by the hair of their heads, cast them to the ground and trample on them.
Modern commentators [A. Hacham (Daat Mikra), S. Paul (Mikra L’Yisrael), NJPS] tend toward the second interpretation as can be noted from the translation cited above. Another modern, A. Ehrlich, known for his insightful if not creative interpretations, has a different take: “A parable. The rich of the people [out of greed] lessened their dignity to the dust in their dealings with the poor, lending them a little money so that the poor might buy shoes, even though such dealings were beneath the dignity of the rich. The rich did this willingly in order to find a pretext to take all that the poor have and to own them.” (Adapted from Mikra K’pshuto, 3:403)
For Amos, then, oppressive behavior was destructive behavior which deserved the harshest reproach. He, along with many of the other prophets, realized that a lack of societal solidarity was worse than any outside enemy and could just as easily bring about the downfall of society. This is an idea worth heeding.