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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)
Amos opens his prophesies with words of condemnation against six nations - Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, 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:
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.
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 relates to others in poorer positions - spiritually, physically, and/or financially. Woe betide him if he 'forgets' to returned a promised phone call, or is seen to be in too much of hurry when giving a decision in any issue or dispute based on the Halacha.
The same thing is the hallmark of the Jew's overall success or failure in realizing Isaiah's dream of Israel's being 'a light to the Nations'. The Jews - and their role in representing G-d's teachings - may be looked up to or despised in the way they treat 'humble and ordinary people' from day to day. Their failings in these important areas are those most apparent to outsiders and as a result can cause a Chillul Hashem - acts that brings the Torah into disrepute, desecrating the Divine Name. If such behavior becomes widespread and condoned amongst the Jewish people, they fail to fulfil their purpose in the Creation, making them comparable to other nations which - on their own spiritual level - fail to live up to the standards G-d expects of them. Thus Judah and Israel were compared to the other nations who likewise failed to live up to respective roles in the Creation.
The following story illustrates Torah standards in this matter. It is taken from 'A Tzadik in Our Time' by Simcha Raz, pp. 109-110 - the personality of that book being R. Aryeh Levine ztl., who died in Jerusalem in 1968.
…R. Judah Leib Maimon ztl., Israel's Minister of Religion, had to make a trip to America, accompanied by his secretary, Israel Friedman. At a meeting with observant Jews in Chicago, one man approached Israel Friedman. "Do you know R. Aryeh Levine in Jerusalem?" he asked.
"Then please give him this" - and he handed Friedman a check for a thousand dollars (then worth far more than today).
"But from whom is it?" asked Friedman. "Reb Aryeh will want to know."
"What difference does it make?" asked the man; and he moved off into the crowd. At that, Israel Friedman went over to R. Maimon and told him about the check. "I believe the man is standing over there, he added. "Can you recognize him, perhaps?" R. Maimon was rather near-sighted, however, and he likewise answered, "What difference does it make?"
In Jerusalem, though, R. Aryeh refused to accept it. "For myself," said he, "I never take gifts. Thank Heaven, I earn enough at my employment. And if it is for charity, I do not know for whom, or what it was intended, nor do I know the source of the money. Four all I know, it may have been acquired dishonorably."
In frustration, Israel Friedman consulted friends; and they went to see R. Zvi Pesach Frank, the rabbi of Jerusalem and R. Aryeh's brother-in-law. He took the check and sent for R. Aryeh at once. "Look here," he said, "I know that many families depend on you for their subsistence. Why should they suffer because you do not know who gave this money? For yourself, you can have all the qualms you want, but not at their expense."
R. Aryeh took the check and cashed it, (distributing the funds to those needy).
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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