Sefer Hoshea, the first book of the Trei Asar, the 12 “minor” prophets, is a collection of prophecies replete with condemnation and criticism of the Northern Kingdom of Israel Throughout its 14 perakim, the navi Hoshea focuses upon the faithlessness of “Efrayim,” and her abandonment of Hashem. In order to better understand the message of this book and, therefore, this week’s haftarah, we should understand the specific time and the historical events that took place during this era.
Hoshea prophesied during the reign of Yerovam ben Yoash (Yerovam II) who ruled over the Northern Kingdom for 41 years. Like his namesake, Yerovam angered Hashem, following the idolatrous and corrupt ways of his predecessor. Nonetheless, the text describes his military victories, through which he succeeded in restoring Israel’s original northern border. Her military successes and the lengthy reign of her king, allowed Efrayim to believe that the era of stability and security was proof enough that the prophet’s claim of Hashem’s anger of their corrupt behavior and devotion to false gods, was unfounded.
Our haftarah opens with the nation’s claim that deception and falsehood was part of our very past. The Malbim offers a unique approach to understanding the words of Hoshea and explains that these opening verses reflect the peoples’ argument against the navi’s criticism. Denying that they were guilty of dishonesty, they claimed that deception was part of Israel’s past: Yaakov was forced to escape to Aram due to his deception and he was then deceived by Lavan and, despite this, he still continued to “protect” the flocks he guarded. Likewise, they argued that Hoshea’s criticism of their idolatrous worship of the “calves” (agalim) was also untrue since it was a navi who was sent by Hashem to release the nation from Egypt and a navi, who, despite their worship of the golden calf, “protected” them from punishment! Remarkably, the people were telling Hoshea that it was, therefore, his responsibility to defend them before God—not condemn them!!!
The navi rejects their arguments, reminding them that their “powerful” king had turned to idols only because of his fear that, were the people to return to worship Hashem, they would rebel against him and join the Southern Kingdom in their worship of Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash, just as Yerovam I had feared years earlier. Hoshea fills his message with the warnings of the coming disasters that would befall the kingdom if they do not cease their idolatrous ways. Powerfully, the prophet also brings up their past history, reminding the nation of all the kindnesses that God had done for them and how they had paid back those favors by forgetting His love and abandoning His worship.
Perhaps more than any other theme, Hoshea—throughout his sefer—calls out Israel for her lack of gratitude to God and appreciation for what He had done for them. He resorts to bringing up the past when speaking to the sinful nation in the hope that they would finally be able to remember what they owe their Heavenly Father and, as a result, return to Him.
The harsh words of the prophet’s message do not complete his Sefer. On the contrary, the final message of the haftarah—and Hoshea’s book—is one of comfort and promise. The book—replete with warning, criticism and reproach of the nation—closes, fittingly, with a call for repentance and with the promise of God’s eventual return to His people.
It is this “coda” that opens the haftarah that precedes Yom Kippur. Indeed, it is that cry “Shuva!” that gives the title to that Shabbat itself.
In our day we may find the lessons of Hoshea particularly fitting. Israel’s departure from Hashem was affected by the departure of her people from each other. When the Northern Kingdom broke from their southern brethren, they left the worship of God as well, and, conversely, when they discarded Divine worship they distanced themselves from their brothers even more. The navi’s call to appreciate Hashem’s kindness must include the necessity of appreciating the remarkable acts of benevolence we see performed by so many of our people. The oneness of The One must be reflected in the unity of His nation.
It is for that reason that, especially at this very difficult time for our nation, we have every right to read this haftarah of rebuke with pride—and not with shame. Today, it is clear that we have learned what Hoshea’s generation did not: recognizing and appreciating the miracles and kindness that Hashem performs for us each day; remaining devoted to one another, despite any internal differences; sacrificing, sometimes tragically, al Kiddush Hashem, for our one and only nation.
Yes, today we have finally responded to Hoshea’s cry of shuva!—both to God … and to each other.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.