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'For they are a nation that lacks counsel. They have no understanding.' (32:28)
'The Priests - who minister to G-d - shall weep, and say: 'G-d: have pity on Your People… Why should the Nations say: "Where is your G-d?" [Then when you have repented] G-d will have been zealous for His Land, and He will spare the people'. (Joel 2:17-18 - Haftara Shabbat Shuva)
This Haftara is unique in drawing from three books - Hosea, Joel, and Micah. All three extracts are on the same theme - Teshuva - repentance.
The prophet Hosea preached to the Ten Tribes in the northern kingdom of Israel during the troubled times before their final fall to Assyria in 721 BCE. His Divine revelations focused on their pagan practices, and their infidelity towards G-d and their own traditions. The book of Hosea opens with the bold illustration of that faithlessness: namely, in terms of his own disastrous marriage to an unfaithful woman. Just as Gomer, his wife, turned out to be untrue to him, so G-d's chosen people had deserted Him. For that, Israel would receive Divine punishment.
Hosea makes references to Jacob - Israel's forebear and third Patriarch - (hence the connection with this, and the next Parasha), and to the Exodus from Egypt. Hosea appears to do this to stress Israel's fickleness and infidelity. Despite its distinguished fathers and its formative period as a nation in Egypt and at Mount Sinai, the people soon found themselves involved in idol worship. Hosea sees the same thing in principle happening all over again. Israel vacillates between the two great powers of Egypt and Assyria, rather than relying on their own true support - the Almighty. Although Hosea describes the situation in moral terms, he is reflecting on the realpolitik of his day. Assyria and Egypt are in constant conflict during this period, but these two great powers are geographically too far apart to face one other directly. The area in between them is Israel and Judah, as well as the neighboring Aram (Syria). By this period, Assyria was the more dominant of the two: it had imposed its will on Israel by setting up a puppet king on its throne, who soon rebelled by making secret approaches to Egypt, and on discovery, the Assyrians stormed in, conquered the Northern Kingdom, and sent it into captivity (Kings II 17:4,6).
Yet in the end, G-d's constant love for His people would be such that at some point in the future (also from now) - after exile and much suffering - that relationship would be restored. This love is expressed in the very moving words: "How can I give you up, O Ephraim? …My heart will not let me do it! My love for you is too strong!"
He thus delivers his closing plea to Israel with an urge to repent, and concludes with the words: 'that the ways of G-d are upright - righteous people will live by following them, and sinners will stumble and fall because they ignore them' (ibid. 14:10).
The Haftara continues by recalling the prophecy of Joel. The center of the prophecy is G-d's retribution the Israelites were about to receive for abandoning G-d and His Commandments - in the form of four phases of crop devastation by locusts, each one worse than the previous one. Though the text gives no direct clues for the dates, it appears to have been addressed to the Kingdom of Israel before the seven year famine in the reign of Ahab's son, Jehoram (Kings II 8:12) (Radak). It may have been a century later - with the four waves of 'locusts' (below) alluding to four ever-more devastating waves of Assyrian invasions, culminating at the exile of the Ten Tribes circa 720 BCE. That would place him in the same era as Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah.
Joel's orders are that Israelites of all classes and age groups assemble together in the Temple area - for public prayer, fasting, and returning to G-d. It sets the scene for the spirit of the High Holidays - 'Blow the Shofar in Zion, solemnize a fast, proclaim an assembly' (Joel 2:15). With sincere recognition of their failings, and pleas to G-d for mercy, He will be 'zealous for His Land, and He will spare the people' (Joel 2:17-18), enabling the Land to become forever fertile and amply able to support a population.
The final three verses are the concluding verses from Micah. Like Hosea, Micah was active during the late eighth century BCE. He was indeed a younger contemporary of Hosea, Isaiah, and Amos. We know nothing of his personal background, except that he originated from Morasha (1:1) - very likely the town of Mareisha, near Latrun and Beth Guvrin. These settlements are in the Shefela region - low hills adjoining the southern coastal plain some fifty kilometers to the west of Jerusalem. This geographical point is important. Micah knew at first hand the stupendous power of the army of the Assyrian Empire, who were at their peak at the time. Having dominated the land within and to the east of Mesopotamia, they moved west to the Levant. There, within Micah's lifetime, they overran and exiled the Ten Tribes of Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The next target was the physically much weaker Southern Kingdom, containing the Temple City of Jerusalem.
Like Isaiah, Micah addressed both the affluent Northern Kingdom, and the poorer Southern Kingdom. He opens with the very powerful: "Look! G-d is coming out of His place. He will descend, and tread upon the heights of the earth. The mountains will melt underneath Him and the valleys will split open - like wax before a flame, like water cascading down a slope." The mountains, explains the Metzudot, are the rich and powerful, the valleys are the common people. 'All this' thunders Micah 'is because of Jacob's sin and the transgression of the House of Israel. Who is Jacob's sin? Surely, Samaria! (the capital of the Northern Kingdom) And who is Judah's altar? Surely, Jerusalem!' (1:3-5)
As other prophets, his dramatic and dire warnings about the fate of the sinning Israelites and Judeans give way to glimpses into the happier and more distant future, including Messianic times. The Prophet foresees the defeat of the mighty Assyrian Empire - which actually took place nearly a century after Micah's death. He also foresees the much more distant Messianic Age, when the faithful remnant of Israel will positively influence civilization in general by spreading G-d's message among them. Then, Man will cease to indulge in and rely on war, paganism, and superstition.
And in the last verses - the conclusion of the Haftara - the trembling people of Israel will return to G-d after prolonged suffering (Micah 7:17). And Micah tells that G-d will accept them: He will be 'forgiving iniquity and pass over transgression for those of His people that remain. He will not maintain his wrath for ever' (Micah 7:18), but 'thrust their sins to the bottom of the sea' - forgiving His people completely, in the merits of the good deeds of their forefathers, Jacob and Abraham (Micah 7:18-19).
Both the Parasha and the Haftara prophesy disaster overtaking the transgressing Israelites in four stages.
The Haftara recalls the prophecy of Joel. As previously mentioned, though the text gives no direct clues for the dates, it appears to have been addressed to the Kingdom of Israel before the seven year famine in the reign of Ahab's son, Jehoram (Kings II 8:12) (Radak). It may have been a century later - with the four waves of 'locusts' (below) alluding to four waves of Assyrian invasions, culminating at the exile of the Ten Tribes circa 720 BCE. - That would put him in the same era as Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah. The plague of locusts (or wave of invaders) were to come in four ever-worsening phases:
'What the gazam left over, the arbeh has consumed. What the arbeh left over, the yelek has consumed. What the yelek left over, the chasil has consumed' (Joel 1:4).
According to the Radak, gazam is associated with gozez - to cut; this species of locust mows down the crops in the field. [After the arbeh have filled themselves up], the yelek work on the leftovers, leaving the chasil to 'finish off' (literal translation) - so that that crop has no future whatsoever. In contrast, Abarbanel suggests that the four types of locusts represent the four empires that would eventually invade the Land of Israel - Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome [putting Joel's prophecy very close to the end of the First Temple Period], and addressed to the so far un-captured Kingdom of Judea.
In the Parasha, Moses warns the Israelites what will happen to them if they forget G-d through persistently and successfully pursuing wealth and affluence.
In the first stage 'they will be cut down' - [G-d's fire] will 'consume the earth its produce (32:22). Then 'I will accumulate evils against them. My arrows will consume them (32:23). The word 'accumulate' comes from the same Hebrew root arbeh - which may be rendered as both 'locusts' and 'accumulate - make many'. After that, they will work on the 'leftovers': 'on the outside the sword shall bereave, while indoors there will be dread' (32:25). And finally, the Land will be so unproductive [chasil - 'finished off' - left barren, unable to support a population] that the people will find themselves parting company with it: 'I will scatter them. I will let Mankind remember them no more' (32:26).
However, it may be suggested that the text of the Haftara complements the text of the Parasha. For the wayward Israelites in the Parasha seem bewildered at the disasters they suffer as their society breaks contact with their Creator through idolatry:
'For they are a nation lacking counsel. They have no understanding. If only they were wise they would understand why that fate fell upon them' (32:28).
It is Joel who supplies the 'counsel' - within the text of the Haftara:
'Sound the Shofar in Zion. Declare a fast. Call an assembly. Gather the people, summon the congregation… [including even] the bride and groom - they must leave the marriage chamber' (Joel 2:15-16).
And when all Israel is assembled in the Holy City with the common purpose of repentance:
'Between the Temple Portico and the Altar, the Priests - who minister to G-d - shall weep. They will say: 'G-d: have pity on Your People… Why should the Nations say: "Where is your G-d?" [Then when you have repented] G-d will have been zealous for His Land, and He will spare the people'. (Joel 2:17-18)
The key word is yivku - 'they shall weep'. It will be public 'between the Temple portico and the Altar'. It will be from the spiritual leaders 'the Priests, who minister to G-d'. This is the only place where such a commandment is given. For (adult male) tears are not produced at will - for the purposes of the moment. They are the genuine article. They demonstrate extreme emotion - a reflex action beyond control. That means that they are so deeply moved and repentant that they understand why the Israelites are suffering disaster. It is a moment of truth - of facing up to past shortcomings, which are total. For there will be no foraging for past good deeds - the only relevant argument will be 'G-d: have pity on Your People… Why should the Nations say: "Where is your G-d?"'
It is the deep emotions associated with the genuine weeping which underlies the opening words of the Haftara, from the Book of Hosea: 'Return, Israel, to the Lord your G-d'. It is the first stage of repentance. It sets to tone to the famous Midrash (Pesikta Rabbati, Shuva Yisrael):
A king's son was at a distance of a hundred days' journey from his father. His friends said to him: 'Return to your father'. He said to them: 'I cannot'. His father then sent to him and said: 'Go as far as you are able, and I shall come the rest of the way to you'. Thus G-d said to Israel: 'Return to Me, and I will return to you' (Malachi 3:7).
This gives us a window to the function of the Sheliach Tzibur - (the person who leads the services), especially on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His personal identification with the content of the prayers should move him to tears, and thereby inspire the congregation through sincerity and presentation of the prayers to true repentance.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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