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Va-Yetze 5769

Parshat Vayetze
(Hosea 12:13-14:10)
9 Kislev 5769
December 6, 2008

In his most recent book, The Personhood of God, Professor Yochanan Muffs has raised our awareness to the very graphic nature of Biblical imagery. The prophets, according to Muffs, did not shy away from \”daring modes of literary depiction\” to get their points across to their audience. (pp. 98-9) In one vivid image, Hosea depicts God\’s nourishing treatment of the penitent after they have turned away from idolatry: \’Ephraim [shall say]: \’What more have I to do with idols? When I [God] respond and look to him [Ephraim], I [God] become like a leafy cypress. Your fruit is provided by Me.\’\” (14:9)

The language of this verse and its portrait of God, however, produced a plethora of different readings and interpretations. The most radically different interpretations were driven by commentators who felt uncomfortable describing God as a \”cypress tree.\” Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets is the most radical of these interpretation: \”Said the House of Israel: \’What is it to us to worship [false] gods? I [God], through My Word, will accept the prayers of Israel and I will show them mercy, through My word. I [God] will make him [Israel] like a goodly cypress that will be forgiven and whose repentance will be accepted\”.

The Targum is so uncomfortable with this Biblical imagery that it maintains that the tree is a description of Israel and not God. Also, notice that the interaction between God and Israel is not direct. God relates to Israel though the mediation of a separate entity – God\’s word. The following midrash takes a similar approach: R. Johanan said: \”I am like a leafy cypress\” (Hosea 14:9) – this means, \’I [Israel] am he who bowed myself low to uproot the very sprit of idolatry.\’ \”Ephraim shall say: What have I to do with idols?\” (ibid.) – What have I to do with the idolatrous impulse? As for me, \”I [Israel] respond\” (ibid.) – That is, I humble myself before Him [God]. \”And look on Him (ashurenu) [God]: as if to say, did I not utter song (shir) to You? What it means therefore is: I [Israel] am the one who bowed himself low to uproot the idolatrous impulse [for Your sake]. (adapted from Song of Songs Rabbah 1:17:2)

For Rashi, however, the image of the cedar tree represents God: \”I [God] will bow Myself down so that he [Israel ] may grab hold of Me like a leafy cedar bows low to the earth so that a person can latch on to its branches, that is to say, that I [God] am readily available to him. As Muffs has noted, the loss of such imagery is a shame. Without it, God is but an abstract. With it, we are never alone.

*According to the Hayei Adam 118:17, we add at the end of the haftarah a verse from the book of Joel (2:26) to end the reading on a positive note.

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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