December 10, 2005
The prophets of Israel often rail against Israel\’s ingratitude to God which expresses itself particularly in their disloyalty to God. God saves them, helps them through difficult times and they opt to turn their backs on God in favor of the deities of their neighbors. This seems to be the theme of Hosea\’s message in the following verse: \”When Ephraim spoke piety, he (Ephraim) was exalted in Israel, but he incurred guilt through Baal, and so he died.\” (Hosea 13:1 NJPS) [Note: Ephraim and Israel are to be understood as synonymous.]
This verse is elsewhere translated: \”When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling. He was exalted in Israel (nasa hu byisrael); but when he became guilty through Baal, he died.\” (See old JPS) This translation is based on Targum Yonathon: \”When someone from the House of Ephraim spoke, trembling seized the nations; Israel was exalted but when they sinned to the extent of worshiping idols, they were killed.\” The common message of these interpretations is that Israel\’s loyalty to God brought them exaltation but their disloyalty brought about their downfall.
Rashi accepts this message but follows a different tact to explain this verse. As often is the case, Rashi\’s interpretation is based on a midrash but before we look at the midrash, it is worthwhile to examine Rashi\’s presentation. Rashi reads this verse as dealing with a particular sinful Ephraimite – Jeroboam, the man who split the kingdoms after the death of Solomon. (The rabbinic tradition often identifies passages with a general message with a specific figure.) Rashi writes: \”While Jeroboam was still jealous for God, he spoke harshly against Solomon [for Solomon\’s indiscretions] with trembling since Solomon was a great king. As a result Jeroboam was elevated to be the king of Israel. When he rose to greatness, he became involved with idolatry and as a result the House of Jeroboam was cut off.\” (Adapted)
Rashi\’s interpretation is based on two earlier sources with changes in emphasis on his part. His first source is the story of the interaction between Jeroboam and Solomon in 1 Kings 11. There we learn that Jeroboam, inspired by Ahijah, the prophet, rebelled against Solomon for his idolatrous worship. Later, however, Jeroboam established the northern kingdom and them himself became involved in idolatry.
The second source is from Vayikra Rabbah. There the story opens with King Solomon celebrating both the dedication of the Temple and his wedding to the daughter of Pharaoh. His exuberant celebration caused him to oversleep in the morning with the keys to the new Temple in his possession. The result was that the morning sacrifice was offered late. The midrash asks the question who woke him on that fateful morning? : \”There are those who say that Jeroboam ben Nabat entered his room and reproved him. Was it permissible for an individual to wake him since Solomon was, after all, the king. Rabbi Haggai in the name of Rabbi Yitzhak said that he entered and reproved the king along with a thousand follow tribesmen, as it is written: \’When Ephraim spoke, he trembled\’ – when Jeroboam spoke, Solomon trembled. The Holy One Blessed be He asked Jeroboam: \’Why did you reprove him?\’ \’he [Solomon] is the king of Israel. [a play on the words of the Hosea verse: \’nasa\’ – \’nasi\’] By your life, I will give you a taste of his kingship by making you a king but will wrest it from you immediately,\’ as it says, \’and he incurred guilt though Baal and died.\’ (12:5 Margoliot ed. p 364-5)
Since it was considered virtuous to reprove the king in this instnace, what was Jeroboam\’s sin? According to the Talmud (Sanhedren 101b), Jeroboam sinned in publicly reproving (and consequently embarressing) the king. Mahzor Vitry (425), a work from the school of Rashi, offers another explanation. It chastises Jeroboam for criticizing Solomon\’s accidental delay in offering sacrifices when he (Jeroboam) would, in the future, willfully do much worse things. This is a very different message than the one we started off from. It teaches us to be very careful to live up to the advice or criticism that we offer others.