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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Parashat Vayeshev - the Haftara

Parashat Vayeshev – the Haftara
Amos 2:6 – 3:8
Reading date: 20th December 2008 – 23rd Kislev 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
“People of Israel, hear this word the Eternal has spoken about you, about the whole crowd that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:You alone have I known of all the families of the earth--therefore I will punish you for all you iniquities. For the day of the Eternal draws near for all the nations:As you have done, so shall it be done to you;Your deeds shall come back to haunt you”. Amos 3:1 - 2

With great power comes great responsibility.
The book of Genesis now begins its final episode: the extended novella of the Joseph narrative. The haftara from the prophet Amos begins with a list of the sins of Israel. The first example, selling the righteous ‘tzaddik’ for silver, echoes the brothers who sell Joseph (called ‘Yosef Hatzaddik’ in rabbinic literature – in rabbinic literature one who is referred to as a ‘tzaddik’ is one without sin) for silver. His second example of a man and son who go to the same woman recalls the story of Judah who sleeps with his son's wife, Tamar.

Amos is the first of the 'literary' prophets. He lived and prophesied around 784-748 B.C.E. during the reign of King Jeroboam. Like Moses, Amos was a 'reluctant' prophet. That is, he described himself as a sheep breeder and tended sycamore figs and was called by YHVH to proclaim a message warning of Israel's destruction. He prophesied in the Northern Kingdom of Israel against the immoral practices that he saw. His message was the classic prophetic message: that rituals and religious piety do not have YHVH's approval when there is inequity between people and social injustice.

Judaism has never valued asceticism, and if one can afford good things, there is no sin in enjoying life. We don't have to suffer. At the same time, we must be careful that our enjoyment does not become the be-all and end-all. Those of us who are blessed with a high standard of living know that we should do more for those in the world without clean water, enough food or decent housing even though we don't always put that knowledge into practice.

Amos, a peasant coming from Judah, is similarly disturbed by the ill treatment of the poor. He is shocked by the lifestyle of the rich and famous in Israel's North Country. His listeners were probably annoyed by his message, thinking, 'Hey, we're comfortable. Don't bother us.' But he wouldn't relent, and in passionate language, he castigates those hypocrites who exploit the poor. We think our situation is different; we don't enjoy our privileged life on the backs of the poor and the disadvantaged. Unless you've read 'No logo' by Naomi Klein and realize that the clothes we wear and the sneakers we buy are being produced by workers (often children) in Bangladesh under inhumane conditions and with no rights. Let us remember the climactic verse from Amos (regrettably not included in our Haftara), "Let justice well up like water, righteousness like a raging stream" (Amos 6:24).

The job of leaders today, they say, is to 'comfort the afflicted' and 'afflict the comfortable.' And as we are in full swing of the season of consumer shopping, it is hard, but maybe more necessary than ever, to hear the message that the goal in life is not more 'stuff.' It is a challenge to teach children to understand the difference between: I need, and I want. (The sentence from your teenager: "I really need the new iPod nano" should be corrected: "I really want the new iPod.")
A few weeks ago in Parashat Lech Lecha we talked about the possible meanings of 'being chosen.' The prophet Amos says something else: Being chosen means being accountable to a higher standard. As the children’s story teaches, "With great power, comes great responsibility." Amos might say, "With great affluence, comes great social responsibility." It's a message suitable for all of us, not just those with super powers.

Don’t we often feel like Scrooge at this time of year? Many have long forsaken the tradition and religious celebration of Christmas; we need to realize that we live in a multicultural society. Rather it is the incessant marketing of mostly unnecessary products that irritates us. As we celebrate Chanukah next week, celebrating the light of our freedom, one of our Chanukah gifts one night should be a donation to any number of charitable causes that increase social justice in the world.

Especially looking back at the untold suffering caused this past year by the natural disasters, war and economic hardship, helping to heal the world would make the Chanukah candles glow just a bit brighter.

Shabbat Shalom

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