Sunday, January 16, 2022

Parshat Vayetzei

Sefer Hoshea, from which this week’s haftarah is taken, is not only the first book of the Trei Asar but it is also one of the most challenging to understand, often demanding of us to review the text and the commentaries a few times in order to understand some of its prophecies. We know a little about Hoshea from the text, including the name of his father (B’eri) and the period during which he functioned as a navi. But the region in which he lived, the tribe from which he came (Reuven, according to Chazal) or why he was chosen by Hashem to deliver His message—are not included in the text.

We do know that he addressed his words to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which he refers to as “Efrayim,” and that he prophesied during the reign of the wicked (yet highly successful) King Yeravam ben Yehoash (Yehoram II). Much of his criticism of Israel centers on their attempts to ally themselves with Assyria or Egypt, hoping to protect themselves from any invasion of the powerful empires neighboring them. The prophet berates the leadership—as well as the entire nation—for turning to mortal men for protection rather than relying upon Hashem Who had been their rock and savior for centuries. Such behavior reflected Israel’s lack of faith in the All Powerful One, a particularly serious offense, given the kindnesess Hashem had bestowed upon them over the years. This same message was considered so important that it was repeated by other contemporary prophets as well.

In trying to better understand the haftarah, we turn to the preceding pesukim in which Hoshea tells Israel that the Southern Kingdom, Yehudah, had sinned also and angered Hashem with their faithlessness. Referring to the Kingdom of Yehuda as “Yaakov,” the navi goes on to show how Yaakov, the forefather, had also sinned but had repented and therefore had been helped by God. In expanding on the events in Yaakov’s life we sense the obvious connection to the parsha and why Chazal established that it be read this week.

But that is not the only connection.

Hoshea begins the haftarah by mentioning the flight of Yaakov to the house of Lavan that culminated some 20 years later in Gilad, where Yaakov, who had dealt justly and honestly with his deceiving father-in-law, erected a monument as a testimony to the peace agreement, the “brit shalom,” between the two. It was an agreement that stated that they would not attack each other and it was an agreement to which God Himself was partner. In contrast, Hoshea condemned the present residents of Gilad for doing the exact opposite. They did not erect a monument calling on Hashem to be part of their brit shalom; instead they erected a prohibited altar calling on false gods to guarantee the peace. Hoshea declares: “Im Gilad-Ahven”—condemning the residents of Gilad of being people of violence and not, as was Yaakov, a man of peace; he accuses them of being a community of corruption and not one of honesty, as Jacob was.

But the prophet’s message was not simply to remind Israel of her past history. Hoshea continues his prophecy by detailing the many kindnesses Hashem bequeathed to Yaakov after he had sinned, thereby teaching his listeners that repentance is repair and that Hashem will ignore past sins and return to His chosen ones if they returned to Him. Jacob struggled and succeeded, and they could—and should—do the same.

It is with this, the theme of teshuva, that the haftarah, and the entire Sefer Hoshea, closes. After enumerating the punishments that await Israel—severe and frightening punishments—Hoshea ends his message with a heart-rending entreaty to the people to repent. “Shuva Yisrael,” he cries, as do we on Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur. “Return to God, Israel!” but not to avoid punishment alone. Return to God, Israel, so that you can rebuild your relationship with Hashem as Yaakov did and so that you too will be granted the blessings and rewards that Hashem wants so much to give you.

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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