Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Parshat Vayeishev

The prophet Amos, a contemporary of the nevi’im Yeshayahu, Micha and Hoshe’a, was a simple shepherd by trade who was called upon by Hashem to deliver words of admonition and warning to the wayward people of the Southern Kingdom of Israel. He begins his words by taking an overview of the sins of Israel’s neighbors, explaining that Hashem’s mercies would allow one, two and even three transgressions to go unpunished, but by the fourth offense He will bring retribution upon that nation. After reviewing the wrongdoings of the neighboring kingdoms of Aram, Philistia, Phoenicia, Amon, Moav and Yehuda, Amos focuses upon the sins of Yisrael, the target of his prophecies, which is where our haftarah begins.

It is common knowledge, as Chazal point out, that the primary sin that caused the Northern Kingdom’s exile (which took place not long after Amos delivered God’s warnings to the nation) was the sin of idolatry. From its very inception, the Northern Kingdom strayed from Hashem and eventually turned to pagan worship. The first king of Israel, Yeravam, prohibited his people from worshipping in the Beit Hamikdash in Yerushalayim and instead erected religious centers in the cities of Bet El and Dan, with worship that centered around golden calves that the king placed there. It is therefore rather puzzling that Amos HaNavi focuses upon the corruption of the legal system and the oppression of the weak by the powerful leadership, rather than the very cause of the soon-to-be exile!

In his book “Netivai Nevuah,” HaRav Moshe Lichtenstein analyzes the underlying causes of avoda zara and suggests two basic reasons for this false worship. The first reason, he proposes, is based upon one’s need to draw closer to the divine. This need is centered about one’s thirst for spirituality in life and, therefore, the motivation is essentially a spiritual one. As a result, the danger is found not in one’s thirst to attach to the immortal but finding that attachment in falsehood, leading to the abandonment of the true God, the One and Only Immortal.

The second draw to idolatry is quite different. It is not caused by a need or search for the metaphysical but quite the opposite: it is caused by the thirst for the physical, the material. It is driven by a rejection of laws that limit one to pursuing one’s own selfish desires, whether they be wealth, power or fame, and the need to put those priorities above anything or anyone. It is this second cause, submits Rav Lichtenstein, that is decried by the prophet. The taking of bribes in order to condemn the innocent, the oppression of the weak and the insensitivity to the suffering of the poor are all manifestations of that which led them to idolatry: the selfish need for power, wealth and fame.

So although the connection of this haftarah to our parsha is clearly made in the opening pesukim where the description of the rampant corruption includes “selling the innocent/righteous for money,” Rav Lichtenstein sees yet another connection to the events in the parsha.

Pointing to Amos’ condemnation of the “insensitivity” of his society to the plight of the weak and the innocent, Chazal may have well seen a connection to the behavior of Yosef’s brothers as they sat and ate their lunch while Yosef cried out from the pit into which they threw him. In fact, it is interesting to note that, when contemplating what sin they could have committed that led the viceroy of Egypt to accuse them of being spies, the brothers agree that their sin was not the fact that they sold Yosef as a slave but that they saw the pain of Yosef and refused to listen to his pleas. They were insensitive to the cries of the innocent—precisely the sin for which Amos condemns Israel. And the sin that, eventually, leads one to idolatry.

One need not be an idolater to close eyes to the suffering of another and be insensitive to those who need help. But perhaps, maybe just perhaps, God regards it as that cardinal sin.

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

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