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Va-Yishlah 5771

Haftarah Parshat Vayishlah
(The Book of Obadiah)
November 20, 2010
13 Kislev 5771

The book of Obadiah is the smallest of the prophetic books, comprising a single chapter. It is also a prophecy encompassing a single topic – the future downfall of Edom, a nation traditionally considered to be the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob. Obadiah\’s prophetic ire was caused by Edom\’s allegiance to the Babylonians in their conquest of Judea. Whatever the historical reasons for the brevity of this prophecy and its singular message, a number of Talmudic sages seemed intrigued by Obadiah\’s exclusive focus on Edom.

Before we tackle the rabbinic answer to the above questions, it is important to note that the rabbinic tradition identified the prophet Obadiah with another Obadiah found in the book of Kings. This Obadiah had gained his renown for rescuing a group of prophets from the hands of Jezebel, the wicked queen of King Ahab, who had sought to kill them. This identification is in line with the rabbinic tendency to attempt to identify lesser known biblical characters with those who are more well-known.

For the Talmud, the book of Obadiah was a bit of a curiosity. It raised the following question and provided two different answers: \”Why should Obadiah [prophesy specifically] against Edom? — R. Isaac answered: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let Obadiah, who has lived with two wicked people (Ahab and Jezebel) and yet did not learn from their [wicked] deeds, come and prophesy against the wicked Esau (the nation of Edom), who lived with two righteous people (Isaac and Rebecca) and yet did not heed their good deeds. (Sanhedrin 39b)

Another interpretation asserts that this same Obadiah was an Edomite convert: \”Ephraim Maksha\’ah, the disciple of R. Meir, said on the authority of R. Meir: Obadiah was an Edomite proselyte: and thus people say, From the very forest itself comes the [handle of the] axe [that fells it]. (Ibid.)

Rashi combines these two interpretations and introduces his explanation with the words: \”From amongst them (Edom) and on account of them (Edom), I will bring [punishment] upon them.\” In other words, the prophecy against the Edomites would be delivered by an Edomite (the second interpretation) and their fate was sealed because of their loathsome behavior (the first interpretation). Rashi\’s words capture the essence of the rabbinic message. For justice to be understood and heeded, it must be discerned. For the rabbis, who were in some sense poetic artists, this meant the punishment had to have an element of poetic justice in it for people to take note of it. For both of the comments noted above, this meant that the justice had to be carried out by someone whose very way of life represented something antithetical to the life of the Edomites. This message would cause people to be aware that actions have consequences, something that human beings are aware of but are not always sufficiently mindful of.

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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