Commentary on Parashat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23
In the first half of this week’s Haftarah, the prophet Amos rebukes Israel for a lengthy list of sins and warns that harsh punishment is on its way. Though the message of retribution for wrongdoing is hardly unique among the latter prophets, Amos’ prophecy has some distinct features. Rather than focusing on Israel’s idolatrous ways, as did most of those who shared Amos’ line of work, he offers a caustic critique of interpersonal behavior among the Israelites.
Justice for the Poor
Amos outlines the ways that the wealthy in Israel oppress the poor: “They have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals…you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground” (2:6-7). This message–as well as other similar cries throughout the book of Amos–has made this prophet of the eighth century BCE particularly popular among modern social activists.
Greed among the Israelites has led to profanity of God’s name, Amos explains. Wealthy people are visiting God’s altars while wearing clothing they have taken unjustly from the poor. Fines levied on the poor are being used by privileged people to purchase and drink wine for supposedly holy purposes (2:8).
Amos decries this hypocrisy. He recalls all the good God has done for the Israelites, namely taking them out of the land of Egypt and destroying the Amorites, so that they could settle their own land. Moreover, Amos claims, God appointed prophets and raised up nazirites among Israel– to show the people the right path, so that they would not sin. But Israel refused to listen: “You made the nazirites drink wine and ordered the prophets not to prophesy” (2:12).
Israel’s unjust behavior and stubborn refusal to be educated will be punished severely, Amos warns. Even the swiftest, strongest warriors will not be able to escape on the day of God’s reckoning (2:14-16).
Cause & Effect
The second half of the haftarah features a string of seven rhetorical questions that use different metaphors to convey one message: It can be possible to look at events and understand what caused them.
Amos’ first three questions are: “Can two people walk together without having previously met? 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?” (3:3-4). The implication is that when God punishes Israel, the people will be able to see that it was their own actions that brought about God’s wrath.
Connection to Parashat Vayeshev
This haftarah is read with Parashat Vayeshev because of one line in it: “They have sold for silver those whose cause was just” (2:6). Amos is making a point about injustice that was going on in his own time, but the rabbis, in true midrashic fashion, seize this opportunity to make a separate point denouncing Joseph’s brothers for selling him. They connect Amos’ critique to the events of Parashat Vayeshev, when Joseph’s brothers sell him to Midianites for 20 pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28).
Pronounced: hahf-TOErah or hahf-TOE-ruh, Origin: Hebrew, a selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets that is read in synagogue immediately following the Torah reading.