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   by Jacob Solomon

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(G-d says to the Israelites though Amos) "Only you have I loved from all the families of the Earth. Therefore I will recall all your transgressions, and use them against you." (Amos 3:2)

By way of introduction…

Amos opens his prophesies with words of condemnation against six nations - Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. Within all those nations, there were faults He was prepared to overlook - at least for a time - but there was a principal one that went beyond His willingness to delay the full measure of His judgment. With one nation it was their unjust enslavement of another nation, with a second, their torture of pregnant women, with a third, the treatment of their subject neighboring people with savage cruelty.

He then turns to Judah and (the subject matter of the actual Haftara) Israel. G-d, through Amos, uses the same words in castigating Judah and Israel as with the pagan nations of Damascus, Edom, and others: "I will overlook the first three rebellious sins, but the fourth I will not let go unpunished!" Less the smug, self righteous nobility of Judah and Israel feel that they can take refuge in their 'yichus' (pedigree) of being G-d's chosen people, Amos gives them a verbal hard slap in the face with the message effectively saying: "You Jews and Israelites are no better than the pagans!" Worse than that - they have incensed their Creator even more than the surrounding idolatrous nations: "Only you have I loved from all the families of the Earth. Therefore I will recall all your transgressions and use them against you." The Children of Israel were the only nation with whom G-d was especially close. That is what made their sins so heinous - making them a special object of His wrath.

The actual four sins of the Northern Kingdom are detailed in the Haftara:

(i) "They have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals."

(ii) "You who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course."

(iii) "Father and son go to the same girl and therefore profane My Holy Name."

(iv) "On every altar, they recline on garments taken in pledge, and drink wine in the house of the pagan gods from money they extorted from the people." (Amos 2:6-8)

Less the leaders of the Northern Kingdom continue to delude themselves that they are too strong to be brought to justice, Amos warns them that Amorite Canaanites were even more powerful and well established in the Holy Land; but the wayward Israelites would have no better luck in fleeing G-d's wrath than their pagan predecessors.

Amos came from a humble background - he was a sheep breeder from Tekoa, near Bethlehem. Although he hailed from Judah, he was involved with the people of the Northern Kingdom - Israel. Despite his unremarkable origins, his work in bringing the message of G-d to the people proved to be too much for the priests of the Northern Kingdom who practiced paganism at their shrine at Bethel. Having publicly declared that the House of Jeroboam - the Northern Kingdom - would die by the sword, and that the pagan temples would be destroyed (Amos 7:9), he is denounced to the king and banished from Bethel. Before this came into effect he still managed to deliver his final defiant message that clearly foretold the destruction of the Northern Kingdom under the Assyrians, which was to take place in 722 BCE.

It seems that Amos was the first of all the prophets whose words were recorded in detail in writing for posterity - preceding Isaiah and Hosea. He delivered his messages from G-d to the people during the later period of the Divided Kingdom: during the reigns of Kings Uzzia of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel (Amos 1:1). That would put his period of activity between 788 and 750 BCE - some thirty or more years before the demise of the Kingdom of Israel and its enforced exile under Shalmenezzer V of the Assyrian Empire.

D'var Torah…

The Radak reads into the above verses: the 'three sins that G-d will forgive' are the cardinal ones of idolatry, murder, and adultery, but 'the fourth one He will not forgive' is the lack of social justice. In His eyes, the Northern Kingdom's overriding transgression was the way their nobility exploited and persecuted the poor of their country. That characteristic was more than G-d could bear, and it was to lead to the downfall of the nation. They would sell the legal rights of poor people for a few pieces of silver - as Joseph's brothers did when they dealt with the problem he posed by selling him into slavery. (Indeed the Midrash [Pirkei de R. Eliezer 38] has the tradition that the brothers used the money from the sale to buy themselves shoes.) They would 'trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground' - presumably in the tradition of Ahab and Jezebel putting Naboth to death through fraudulent witnesses, thereby obtaining his coveted vineyard (Kings I:19).

It is worth noting that when people recall the greatness of Torah leaders - past and present - they rarely do so by instantly recalling his Chiddushim - novellae on the Torah and Talmud, and Teshuvot (Halachic resposa). Even Chumrot - stringent levels of observance - relatively seldom come to mind. What is most remembered and taken as a hallmark of being a Ben Torah is the way he or she relat