Dov Lerea
Dov Lerea

The entrapments of success

 Parashat VaYeshev

Haftorah: Amos 2:6-3:8

November 19, 2021/15 Kislev 5782

Amos was from the south, but he preached in the Northern kingdom, particularly in Beth El, where there was a royal sanctuary. (Amos 7:13)  He lived during the 8th century BCE, and was a contemporary of Isaiah. He was not a member of a guild of “professional” prophets, but responded to Hashem’s calling. Beforehand, he had been both a sheep herder and farmer. Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all emerged as prophets in this same tradition. Perhaps Moshe himself established this tradition, in which a “simple” person is called into prophecy, resists, but subsequently has no choice but to follow his destiny as God’s mouthpiece to the people.

In this haftorah, Amos turns to the people of the north and tells them: 

Ah, I will slow your movements as a wagon is slowed when it is full of cut grain. Flight shall fail the swift, the strong shall find no strength, and the warrior shall not save his life. The bowman shall not hold his ground, and the fleet-footed shall not escape, nor the horseman save his life. Even the most stouthearted warrior shall run away unarmed, naked. that day —declares the LORD. (Amos 2:13-15)

Why does Amos go through such pains telling the Jewish people of the northern kingdom that they will not be able to run, that they will be unable to defend themselves, that they will ultimately be overtaken? What prompted this series of pronouncements, made as absolute statements of fact about to unfold in the future? I, God, enabled you to defeat the Amorites, whose military strength and stability was like a mighty oak tree with deep and powerful roots. I enabled you to defeat them, and then conquer and inherit the land of Israel. I redeemed you from Egypt, and I provided you with spiritual role models in prophets and nazirites. Nevertheless, despite the implications of My loyalty and love for you, you have

…sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals. [Ah,] you crush the heads of the poor, And push off the road the humble of the land and make the humble walk a twisted course!Father and son go to the same girl, and thereby profane My holy name. They recline by every altar on garments taken in pledge, and drink in the House of their God wine bought with fines they imposed. (Amos 2:6-8)

The wealthy have become corrupt, avaricious and self-serving. There was little empathy for the poor and destitute. In Midrash Tanchuma, parashat Noah, 5:1, the rabbis compared Noah and Yosef, and by extension, the social and emotional tenor of their generations. In this midrashic tradition, Yosef was the Tzadek to whom Amos was alluding, sold by his brothers for the price of a pair of sandals. (This tradition has also been liturgist in the piyutim of Yom Kippur.) This event epitomized the lack of love and empathy between brothers, devolving into an act of cruelty with large national implications. God destroyed the entire generation of Noah because humanity in general was characterized by violence, mendacity, avarice, cruelty, and merciless exploitations. Amos is very specific here. The wealthy get richer at the expense of the poor becoming more destitute. There are no moral boundaries. The wealthy purchase expensive clothing on the backs of those who have nothing. In Sefer Devarim, parashat Ki Tetzei, Moshe had taught explicitly that one may not take a garment as collateral for a loan to the poor, without returning that pledge daily so that the person can still have a blanket or tunic to wear. The critique by Amos is pointed and clear. The Jewish people have turned their backs, out of their own greed, on the lessons God wanted them to learn. More than owing God loyalty, the Jewish people were to have learned from the experience of being a minority, oppressed by the Egyptians. A people with power can either extend their hearts and hands to others, or exploit them and crush their hopes and lives. God’s expectation was the former. The Jewish people fell in love with their own well-being at the expense of those who depended upon them

Amos references this expectation explicitly when God declared: You alone have I singled out Of all the families of the earth–that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities. Can two walk together Without having met? (Amos 3:2-3) You walked with Me, said God. We have a relationship. I expect you to treat My creations with the same love and empathy and fairness and justice that motivated Me to create humanity in the first place. This expectation, declares Amos, is built into the structure of creation, into the very nature of the reality God expects people to nourish and sustain. And while Amos frames this expectation specifically for the Jewish people in the Northern Kingdom, I easily universalize this message and extend it beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people to all of humanity, to any society in which there are powerful classes of well-endowed people, and those who are destitute, poor dependent, as a minority or even as a majority.

This haftorah concludes with a series of rhetorical questions which hammer this point home. God wants humanity to behave a certain way towards each other. This is, for God, a “natural law,” though ironically dependent upon human motivation, dedication, and the sensibility of empathy and compassion. Amos declared: 

Does a lion roar in the forest  when he has no prey? Does a great beast let out a cry from its den without having made a capture? Does a bird drop on the ground—in a trap— with no snare there? Does a trap spring up from the ground unless it has caught something? When a ram’s horn is sounded in a town, do the people not take alarm? Can misfortune come to a town If the LORD has not caused it? (Amos 3:3-6)

You human beings have caught yourselves in your own snare! How long do you think your civilization will last, characterized by avarice, greed, menacity, callousness, self-servitude at the expense of those whom you are responsible to nourish and sustain? The Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, 12th century southern France, made this interpretation explicit when he explicated these metaphors. He said: A human being, whose wiles, intelligence, and capacity for deception, can ensnare a bird, so too, God, whose intelligence exceeds human capacity, will ensnare you [as a result of your immoral behaviors].  How can you possibly believe that you have the capacity to avoid My decrees against you? Were our ancestors at this time humble and filled with gratitude, they would have treated the poor and destitute, the homeless and the hungry, those who were the objects of aggression and exploitation, with empathy, compassion and righteousness. Instead, our ancestors became arrogant, felt they could behave with impunity, and take for themselves whatever they desired. This was their ultimate downfall. We are blessed by the words of Amos this week, as we approach Chanukkah, to be reminded that our achievements and success are miraculous blessings, teaching us humility, and not arrogance.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Urim Sameach

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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