The first chapter of Hosea opens with a scathing reproof of the Israelite nation for disloyalty to God. This same message also takes up much of the second chapter, which forms this week’s haftarah. The beginning of this week’s haftarah (2:1-4), however, offers an interlude with a message of hope to this small beleaguered people, its numbers diminished, its people exiled and its prophets railing against the societal ills which brought on these conditions. Hosea extends a message to his people that their population would be replenished, the unity of the nation restored and that God would end His people’s exile from their home: “The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall assemble together and appoint one head over them, and they shall go up from the land (v’alu min ha’aretz) – for marvelous shall be the day of Jezreel.” (2:2)
The phrase “v’alu min ha’aretz” is difficult. This same expression was used by Pharaoh to describe his concern that the Israelite slaves might rebel and “go up from the land”. (Exodus 1:10 – Robert Alter translation) There, this translation seems totally justified. In Hosea, however, it seems less clear. Does it refer to God’s exiled children leaving their countries of exile or does it mean something else? The verb “ayin lamed hey”, in rabbinic parlance, usually refers to going up to the land of Israel, while, on the other hand, the word “eretz” usually connotes “the land of Israel. These difficulties led the New JPS translation to give an “out of the box” translation: “they shall rise up from the ground” (and in a note it adds the possibility “from their wretched condition” and “to ascendency over the land”). None of these translations seem to reflect the peshat or plain meaning of the text but, at least, they belie the problem.
This difficulty seems to have prompted the composition of the following late medieval midrash: “In this world, where people do not join together one with another, but rather, are jealous of one another – all the while that they act out their jealousy, their humanity is diminished (yerida), but, in the future, when they join together their humanity will be ascendant (mitaleh). [This is what is meant by the verse:] ‘v’alu min ha’aretz’. (adapted from Agadat Bereishit 64:2 Buber ed. p. 129) This midrash understands “v’alu min ha’aretz” metaphorically to mean “to rise up from one’s lowly state” to a more noble state, namely that the people will mend their ways. This midrash may have been the inspiration for the NJPS translations.
There is an important lesson here. Human beings have the ability to shape their lives as individuals for good or for bad. The same goes for their relationships with others. We may convince ourselves that the impact of the bad behavior of the individual or the improper interaction of the few is minimal. This midrash reminds us that what we do and how act as individuals has an effect on society as a whole for good or for bad. Hosea’s message should encourage us to aim for the good.