Dov Lerea

Religious vision and political instability

Parashat VaYetze
Haftorah: Hosea 11:7-12:14

Hosea lived during the 8th century BCE, and prophesied for over 60 years. He was the last prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, called in his prophecies, “Ephraim.” Hosea the prophet lived during the reign of King Hoshea who was the last king of Ephraim. His life was dedicated to trying to realign the short-sighted, disastrous political alliances of his day with a religious vision of how the Jewish people should see themselves and interpret their purpose in the world. Political conflicts, Hosea taught, could only be tempered, balanced and resolved through the lens of religious values. If Israel (i.e., the Northern Kingdom) would fail to see that, they would pay dearly. Nevertheless, at the same time, God would never abandon the divine hope that in the future, the Jewish people would ultimately rely on the religious commitments that inform their identity, despite the political pressures of the day. God’s covenant would always remain eternally renewed despite disastrous, myopic decisions in the moment. The idea that political instability can be redressed through a visionary commitment to authentic religious values has deep resonance in our dangerously destabilized world today.

Here is some background to Hosea’s powerful and courageous career. Ahaz was the King of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He formed an alliance with the Assyrian super-power under the rule of Tiglath-Pilesar III. At the same time, the Southern Kingdom was ruled by the military leader Pekah. Pekah formed an alliance with Aram-Damascus, the enemy of Assyria. Pekah and the leader of Aram named Rezin, tried to force Ahaz to join a coalition against Assyria. Hoshea (not our prophet, Hosea) was at the time a captain in Pekah’s army. Hoshea had Pekah assassinated, and ascended to the throne of Ephraim, heading a pro-Assyria party. At this point, there is now political tension between the Southern and Northern kingdoms in alliances with enemies. Judah was pro-Aram-Damascus, while Ephraim was pro-Assyria. After the assassination of Pekah, Tiglath-Pilesar III rewarded Hoshea by appointing him King of Ephraim. (In a way, Hoshea was a forerunner of Gedaliah, who was appointed governor of Judah by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE. Both were, in effect, “puppet” monarchs.) To maintain protection in the alliance, Hoshea paid tribute to Tiglath-Pilesar III. (Tribute had already been paid before the ascension of Hoshea to the throne on Ephraim. See, II Kings 15:19)

Tiglath-Pilesar III was succeeded by Shalmaneser V. Once Shalmaneser V ascended, Hoshea took that moment of the transition of power to extricate Ephraim from Assyrian control. He did that by entering into negotiations with Egypt. Shalmaneser V understandably saw these negotiations as acts of rebellion, and he attacked cities in the Northern Kingdom. Egypt withheld support, leaving Hoshea to fend for himself against Assyria. The Assyrians, under Shalmaneser V conquered the capital of Ephraim, the city of Shomron (“Samaria”). Shalmaneser V then died, succeeded by Sargon II. Sargon II pacified the north, exiled the population to beyond the Euphrates River, and effected a population transfer with other ethnic populations. The Book of II Kings describes this population transfer (17:6;24), and also states that Israel was exiled by the Assyrians because they “sinned against God (17:7-24). King Hoshea disappears at this moment in the narrative. It is in the midst of these political instabilities, warfare, doomed allegiances, subjugation, and despair that the prophet Hosea lived and prophesied. That was a period of acrimony between north and south and between broken alliances, intimidation, mistrust, and false promises. Hosea’s prophecy demanded that the people of Israel take a long view, understand their historical experiences more deeply, and regain a sense of their purpose and destiny in the world in order to clarify their role on the international stage.

The haftorah can be divided into three segments. The first and third segments describe God’s love for Ephraim. They evoke the history of the relationship between God and Israel, and allude to a hopeful future. The middle segment describes Israel’s sinful, deceitful nature. Hosea opens with these words:

For My people persists In its defection from Me; When it is summoned upward, It does not rise at all. How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How surrender you, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah, render you like Zevoiim? I have had a change of heart, all My tenderness is stirred. I will not act on My wrath, will not turn to destroy Ephraim. For I am God, not man, the Holy One in your midst: I will not come in fury. The LORD will roar like a lion, and they shall march behind God; when God roars, God’s children shall come fluttering out of the west. They shall flutter from Egypt like sparrows, from the land of Assyria like doves; and I will settle them in their homes —declares the LORD. (11:7-11)

Hosea mentions the doomed cities of Admah and Zevoiim, the two cities destroyed like Sdom and Amorrah (Bereshit. 10:19; 14:2, 8; Devarim. 29:22.) “I will not allow the cities of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, be eternally destroyed.” God’s heart remains tender and open. A human king would be rigid, but God responds with compassion and love. It is just that Israel is not hearing God’s voice in this moment, and instead, listening to the allure of Tiglath-Pilesar III. In response, Hosea describes the metaphor of the birds. The Metzudat David, Rabbi David Altschuler, 17th-18th century Prague, explained the metaphor of birds “fluttering” to mean that one again the Jewish people will hear God’s voice and respond with alacrity, infused by awe with just the right measure of fear appropriate to the divine voice. Just as a lion will cause birds to rise and fly, so too, will hearing God’s voice once again thunder in might cause Israel to return to their homes in the land of Israel in peace and security. He wrote: In response to God’s voice Israel will quickly return from Egypt and Assyria.

Those deep feelings of commitment and love will transcend any momentary disappointment in God’s relationship with Israel. God’s faith in our humanity remains steadfast. Nevertheless, Hosea then describes God’s reflections on Jewish behaviors in the moment. Harshly critical of Israel’s misguided political alliances and seductively abusive bedfellows, Hosea invokes the life of Yaakov Avinu. Ephraim, like Yaakov, cannot be trusted. The politicians will make and break alliances whimsically with now vision of stability. The politics of the day are as transient as the wind, filled with “hot air.” The politicians are mendacious. Heaping false promises on top of lies, they cause only one disaster after another. Remember Yaakov’s lies; he was punished by God and forced to flee into exile. Mendacity, false hopes and promises, deceit, will only land you in exile. Today, Assyria; tomorrow, Egypt. Then, in an amazing reference, the prophet describes Yaakov and Esav in utero:

Ephraim surrounds Me with deceit, The House of Israel with guile. But Yehuda stands firm with God and is faithful to the Holy One. Ephraim tends the wind and pursues the gale; he is forever adding Illusion to calamity. Now they make a covenant with Assyria, now oil is carried to Egypt. The LORD once indicted Yehuda and punished Yaakov for his conduct, requited him for his deeds. In the womb he tried to supplant his brother; grown to manhood, he strove with a divine being, (Cf. Bereshit. 25.26 and 32.29) He strove with an angel and prevailed— the other had to weep and implore him. At Bethel Yaakov would meet him, there to commune with him. (12:1-5)

Yaakov had no business lying or resorting to trickery; God had already blessed him with strength symbolized by his holding his older brother’s heel. He was endowed, blessed with inner strength. Yaakov should have recognized and relied on the stability of his own destiny and sense of purpose. Instead, he grew faint-hearted and insecure, weak and cowardly, resorting to falsehood and chicanery until he wrestled with his own angel in the middle of the night and started to recognize himself. As Ibn Ezra wrote, explaining the words of Hosea:

Why don’t the descendants of Yaakov know their own strength that I conferred upon their ancestor? Why don’t they understand that I gave Yaakov the strength to hold onto his brother’s heel in utero? This, indeed, was miraculous, for ordinarily a fetus does not have that kind of strength. It is dependent upon the placenta, and only starts to gain strength once born into this world. (comments on 12:4)

Only then did Yaakov come into a moment of realization, returning to Beth-El, the “gateway to Heaven,” realizing his own potential, and I would add, start to comprehend the enormity of his own purpose. That realization, Hosea is saying in my opinion, should have guided Israel through the political tensions and turmoil of the day. Similarly, Hosea is teaching us that our purpose in the world must transcend the political discourse, polarizations, demonizations, subjugations, rigidities, and “othering” that characterizes the destabilizing coalitions being formed. It is to this position that Hosea returns in the final segment of the haftorah.

Here are the principles that must guide political affiliations. First, Hosea names “goodness and justice,” chesed and mishpat. Any alliance that does not further compassion, empathy, truth and justice for humanity is idolatrous, blasphemous of the covenant of Avraham (of which Yaakov bears the mantle). Furthermore, the Jewish people are capable of following ourselves: We are so clever; we have made it ad become wealthy. God’s promises have sustained us, while those riches were obtained deceitfully, through guile, loopholes and cleverness:

Yet the LORD, the God of Hosts, Must be invoked as “LORD.”h You must return to your God! Practice goodness and justice, And constantly trust in your God. A trader who uses false balances…Ephraim thinks, “Ah, I have become rich; I have gotten power! All my gains do not amount to an offense which is real guilt.” (12:5-10)

However, continues Hosea, God knows Israel all too well, ever since their first sojourn in Egypt as a people. You have to be a people guided by prophets. “I always spoke through prophets.” We are a people that must have a vision that transcends ourselves and that speaks to the future of humanity. We must be a mission-driven people; that is the way I, God, always spoke to your ancestors, and that is what I expect now, despite the rhetoric and pressures of Assyria and the allure of Egypt. Yaakov was a shepherd (like Moshe). He guarded sheep to gain a wife. I, God, guard Israel through prophets, to sustain our marriage, the meeting of heaven and earth, the bond between humanity and God through the vision-driven behavior of the Jewish people:

I the LORD have been your God Ever since the land of Egypt. I will let you dwell in your tents again As in the days of old, when I spoke to the prophets; for I granted many visions, and spoke parables through the prophets. As for Gilead, it is worthless; and to no purpose have they been sacrificing oxen in Gilgal: the altars of these are also like stone heaps upon a plowed field. Then Yaakov had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard sheep. But when God brought Israel up from Egypt, it was through a prophet; through a prophet they were guarded. (12:11-14)

On these verses the Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, 12th-13th century, France, wrote: I always responded to your experiences with chesed, love and compassion, through a prophet. Did I not send you Moshe in Egypt, and throughout all the hardships of the wilderness, is it not true that you never really lacked for anything that you needed? Why do you not remember [and take these experiences to heart now?] Radak is making Hosea’s message explicit: the pro-active, courageous response to political leadership of subjugation, mendacity, cruelty, military power, and abusive power is to withstand the pressures of entering into alliances with those powers. The courageous stance of faith in God requires the high-ground, to never desist from fighting for causes of justice with empathy, for in the end, even if you suffer, you will be at home in the world and not in exile. Exile is alienation from God’s purpose, not merely a geographic dislocation. May we take this teaching to heart.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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