1 December 2007, 11:14 AM
The parshah for today is Vayeshev, and the haftorah portion is Amos 2:6–3:8. The portion from the Pentateuch has a variety of misbehaviors of various kinds, and the Haftorah is, unsurprisingly, a catalogue of misbehaviors and threats of punishment.
Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away [the punishment] thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek: and a man and his father will go in unto the [same] maid, to profane my holy name: And they lay [themselves] down upon clothes laid to pledge by every altar, and they drink the wine of the condemned [in] the house of their god.
Yet destroyed I the Amorite before them, whose height [was] like the height of the cedars, and he [was] strong as the oaks; yet I destroyed his fruit from above, and his roots from beneath. Also I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and led you forty years through the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite. And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazarites. [Is it] not even thus, O ye children of Israel? saith the LORD.
But ye gave the Nazarites wine to drink; and commanded the prophets, saying, Prophesy not. Behold, I am pressed under you, as a cart is pressed [that is] full of sheaves. Therefore the flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not strengthen his force, neither shall the mighty deliver himself: Neither shall he stand that handleth the bow; and [he that is] swift of foot shall not deliver [himself]: neither shall he that rideth the horse deliver himself. And [he that is] courageous among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, saith the LORD.
Hear this word that the LORD hath spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying, You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. Can two walk together, except they be agreed? Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey? will a young lion cry out of his den, if he have taken nothing? Can a bird fall in a snare upon the earth, where no gin [is] for him? shall [one] take up a snare from the earth, and have taken nothing at all? Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done [it]? Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets. The lion hath roared, who will not fear? the Lord GOD hath spoken, who can but prophesy?
Most translations now give 2:13 as the Divine coming down on the people Israel as a Mack truck, rather than the other way around. Prepositions, they’re the whatsit of thingy.
Anyway, the basic meaning is clear: The people Israel have been bad, and there’s trouble a-comin’. Amos is speaking to the North (did we talk about the North last time?), and of course the North was utterly destroyed, etc, etc. I think what’s important here (for us in this place and time, in the sense that the Divine is speaking to us through Scripture) is this attitude toward exceptionalism. I know, I know, I’m on about it all the time. But listen: the people Israel are Chosen, and the Lord says “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” An exceptional blessing. But that blessing doesn’t tell us that we are exceptionally safe, or that we are exceptionally forgiven. Not at all. The Lord’s knowledge of us means that we are exceptionally likely to be punished for our wrongdoing, that we are held to an exceptional standard. That the Eye is on us. Judah the Prince says “Consider three things, that thou mayest not come within the power of sin. Know what is above thee—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all thy deeds written in a book.”
I’m particularly struck by the offer of wine to the Nazarite, who has sworn a vow of various kinds of abstinence, including wine. Amos seems to think that prophets and Nazarites are the cream of the crop, while an outside observer might think otherwise. The Rabbis (hundreds of years after Amos) don’t particularly like Nazarites, or at least don’t think that people should take those kinds of vows, which lead to trouble. But you don’t have to accord any particular status to the Nazarite to find this passage affecting. It’s the act of temptation itself, together with the contemptuous disregard for the Nazarites own feelings. I read it as an act of arrogance, the act of someone who thinks that his own tastes and preferences should be enforced on others. And a belief that such arrogance will not be humbled.
It is. Israel is brought low. And why not? The Amorite was. Rome fell. Sparta fell. Bagdad itself is in rubble, one with Nineveh and Tyre. We may feel that we are exceptionally blessed—we may be exceptionally blessed, but that does not protect us against the wrath of the Divine, or against the natural consequences of arrogance and wrongdoing, or against the simple history of time. The ten tribes were Chosen, and they are gone.
I think the lesson for us, particularly Americans at the moment, is that we are Chosen (I think everyone is Chosen, actually, that we are all called to think of ourselves as Chosen, that the Divine can say to each of us You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. No contradiction, there, just the immensity of the Divine) and that we are exceptionally blessed, and that’s a good thing and all, but that just means that the Eye is upon our deeds, and the Ear is bent to our words, and all our deeds are written in a book. He that is courageous among the mighty, and that’s us in spades, will flee away naked someday, just see if we won’t.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,