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'Ephraim (Israel, the Northern Kingdom)… now they make a covenant with Assyria, now oil is carried to Egypt (Hosea 12:2).
Return O Israel to the L-rd your G-d. For you have stumbled in your sins (ibid. 14:2).
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).
There are several customs concerning the reading the two Haftarot from Hosea (11:7-12:12; 12:14-14:10) over the weeks of Parshiyot Vayeitzei and Vayishlach within both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. I have therefore combined the two Haftarot for Vayeitzei, leaving the Book of Obediah for Vayishlach.
The above introduction brings out how Israel refused to learn from its past acts of faithlessness to G-d. It let its own failures repeat themselves. It is quoted from a discourse before the High Holydays by Dayan L. Grossnass, quoted in Dansky M.: As heard from Rabbi Wagschal (1997), pp. 167-8.
"Consider… the case of the beaver. Beaver fur is a very valuable commodity and therefore these small animals find themselves a constant prey to trappers who deploy the following methods to catch them. The beaver is an animal of rigorous habits. When it goes down to the river to drink water, it will track its return route and follow its own footprints with great precision. Its hunters, taking advantage of this particular quirk, watch out for when the beaver goes to the water and place their traps on the beaver's own tracks. For the animal, although fully aware of the trap placed a few paces ahead of him, seems to act on 'automatic pilot', never deviating form the set path. It therefore precludes itself from the possibility of escape."
Rav Grossnass concluded: "If we could question the beaver and ask him, 'Why is it that you fail to choose another route knowing that you are about to be trapped?' he might answer: 'I cannot'. For the beaver is trapped, as it were, by its own instincts. Hemmed in by the limitations of its own nature, it falls unswervingly to its end."
"We human beings… are similar to the beaver. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we beat our breasts and enumerate our many sins. We cry and beg for forgiveness in a genuine fashion. However, as soon as the days of Awe have passed, what happens? We fall back into our 'old tracks' - the 'old temptations'. And yet, like that foolish animal, we are fully aware that the destruction lies in our former lifestyle - yet we still do not break free."
This underlies a key point of Hosea's message. The people of the Ten Tribes indeed were sincere in repentance at certain points in their history - not only under Moses, but later on: following the miracle of Elijah on Mount Carmel, and their wholehearted support for King Jehu in his war on idolatry. However - like the beaver - they still went back to their own habits: placing their faith in playing one nation against another to keep themselves in business, instead of doing what was morally right, and trusting in G-d. And like the beaver, Hosea berates them for refusing to see the traps set on their own tracks. That gives the background to the final message: Return O Israel to the L-rd your G-d. For you have stumbled in your sins...
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 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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