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'I will settle them on their land. They will never again be uprooted from the land that I have given them, says the L-rd your G-d.' (Amos 9:15)
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 in 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 Northern Kingdom of Israel reached its peak during that period, and both the texts and the archaeological records indicate that it was far more prosperous than the Southern Kingdom of the remaining two tribes. Amos delivered his prophecies to an affluent society. There was pride, plenty, and splendor in the land, cities, and palaces. There were grave social injustices against which Amos delivered the Word of G-d. As the text relates, the rich adorned their summer and winter palaces with ivory and costly furniture, on which they reclined and feasted. They planted vineyards and anointed themselves with precious oils. Amos compared their women - who were addicted to wine - to fat cows. The poor, by contrast, were ruthlessly exploited: because their judges were corrupt, the poor were afflicted, and sold into slavery.
In the Haftara, Amos' prophecies against the Northern Kingdom become most intense. For he tells the sinful nation that their transgressions have made them strangers to G-d, and thus there is no reason why He should not punish him in accord with their transgressions. That he once took them our of Egypt should have made them His loyal servants, but their way of life had become no better than the surrounding Philistines and Arameans. Nevertheless, says G-d, He will only punish those who deserve it. "Just as a pebble shakes back and forth in the sieve, but does not fall to the ground, so I will shake the House of Israel back and forth through all the nations." (9:9) Ibn Ezra and the Radak hold that this sifting is a metaphor for Israel's purification though exile. For the chaff that falls away represents the wicked who will fall by the wayside during the difficult exile, whereas the fat kernels of grain or the pebbles that remain in the sieve represent the righteous, who will eventually participate in the Final Redemption.
Amos' final prophecy describes that Redemption. Its details do not show any change of the natural order, but the existing order will develop to the full. Thus nature itself will participate to make the farmer's work productive beyond his greatest expectations. The land will give such abundant crops that the farmers will not manage to complete the harvest by the time the next planting season begins. And the Israelites in returning to their land, will remain there, permanently, for all time.
What type of person was Amos? The opening verse of the Book states that he was a shepherd - nothing more. In the Guide for the Perplexed (32:2), the Rambam states that prophecy only comes to those specially endowed with the rare essential mental and emotional capacities, or to those who have developed those faculties through study and consistent and persistent character refinement. It is not within the reach of simple herdsmen per se. Abarbanel, however, disagrees with the Rambam. He quotes that opening verse as proof that he was a plain shepherd - nothing more. He argues, holding that prophecy is a force that emanates directly from G-d. Without that, no person on his own accord can deduce what He has decreed. Hence there is no need for the Rambam's pre-requisites: if G-d so dictates, anyone - even a simpleton, may deliver valid prophecy.
There is nothing supernatural about Amos' vision of the Redemption. As mentioned earlier, his Word from G-d emphasizes nature delivering its full potential within its existing laws. The valleys - where the soils are most fertile - will yield abundant grain. The hills, whose climate is milder and whose soils are poorer, will nevertheless support rich dairy farms and vineyards. And within the environment of agricultural prosperity and economic security, the Israelites will re-establish themselves in the Holy Land: this time forever.
That ideal brings the following question. The whole succession of events above contradicts the previous spiritual experience of the Jewish people. History has shown that the Torah Nation's major formative processes did not take place under conditions of abundance, or during times when the Israelites were well established in their own Land. The Israelite, and later the Jewish nation started with the individual, Abraham. His teachings and values were developed and revealed to an entire nation under Moses, and at the Revelation at Mount Sinai. They were reaffirmed and further developed after serious lapses and exile under Ezra, during the early Persian Period. And they became adapted for the long exile following the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Rabbis of the Talmud. In each stage, the Israelites were either outside the Holy Land or surviving there under foreign dominion.
By contrast, when the Israelites were firmly established in their homeland under their own rule, they appeared to find it extremely difficult to remain loyal to their lofty position as light to all other nations - especially when times were good. The rot began to set in towards the end of King Solomon's reign, and it appeared in an enlarged form after the Division of the Kingdom - both in the Northern Kingdom, under the Houses of Omri and Jehu, and in the Southern Kingdom, under kings such as Hezekiah's son, Menasseh. It reappeared again under the Maccabean kings, such as Alexander Janneus.
Amos' vision does not mention a charismatic Messianic type leader. Its whole emphasis is on precisely the two things that in the past encouraged the Israelites to forget their special role in the Creation, and thus earn yet another exile - settled, prosperous life in the Holy Land, under their own rule. How may that be a structure for true spiritual progress?
The end of the Book of Leviticus, with its description of the idyllic blessings that await the Israelites if they fulfil their Covenant with G-d, suggest an approach. As part of the reward:
'Your threshing will last until vintage and your vintage will last until the sowing'. (Leviticus 26:5)
Rashi explains that the prosperity will be so great that people will be still threshing the grain when the time comes to harvest the grapes. The grape season will be so successful that people will be still processing the grapes when it is time to cut down the crops. The agricultural land will be so productive that the seasons in the farmers' year will overlap: as the Haftara itself puts it: 'the ploughman will meet up with the reaper, and the treader of grapes with the seed carrier.' (9:13) People will work, but they will experience success in their work.
The Netziv of Volyzhyn develops this idea further, and his idea explains how the forms of prosperity mentioned in the Haftara are spiritually beneficial to the Israelites. He emphasises that the constant activity is an essential part of the blessing. When people are busy, they sense fulfillment - they enjoy the health that comes with full, personally satisfying employment. That is the meaning of the end of the blessing in Leviticus (ibid): 'you shall eat bread to satisfaction.' The food will be on the table, affording the contented feeling of having been honestly earned. With plenty of economically useful and psychologically fulfilling activities, the Israelites will indeed feel 'planted on their land' - they will be happy to be there, and not travel abroad to seek employment. Thus they will 'live securely in their land' (Lev. ibid).
But the real rot sets in when the economy becomes over-prosperous - causing idleness… The Netziv specifies that indolence encourages people to seek amusement and stimulation. They lose their discipline of home, routine, and community. That increases the dangers of sin, and even has ill effects on physical well-being.
The above discussion gives the essential element to make 'settled, prosperous life in the Holy Land, under their own rule' a spiritual as well as and economic success. People will continue to work hard, experience prosperity, and in the process come closer to G-d by seeing His Hand in guiding their success.
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT ACHAREI-MOT
1. Why does the High Priest perform the Yom Kippur Temple Service in simple lined garments, and not in the more elaborate clothes he usually wears in Temple Service? - according to Rashi.
2. What, according to R. Bachya, may be learnt from the Torah's insistence that no one should be in the entire Tent of Meeting when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur?
3. What, according to Hirsch, may be learnt from the presence of the two male goats in the Yom Kippur Temple Service - one 'for G-d' and one 'for the Azazel'?
4. What is the significance of the words 'lifnei Hashem' (before G-d), in 'you will be cleansed from all your sins "before G-d"'? (16:30) - according to the Kli Yakar.
5. Why would the taking away of an animal's life without due cause be reckoned as murder (17:4) according to the Kli Yakar?
6. Why, according to Hirsch, are the opening words of the section of the Torah dealing with forbidden sexual relationships the same as the opening words of the Ten Commandments - namely 'I am the L-rd your G-d'? (18:2)
7. How are the words 'You shall live by them' (the Mitzvot) (18:5) understood by (a) The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a), and (b) The Ramban?
8. In what way does Rashi explain the words, in the context of forbidden sexual relationships, 'the land shall not vomit you out for having contaminated it'? (18:28)
ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT ACHAREI-MOT
1. The High Priest wears simple linen garments in performing the Yom Kippur Temple Service as an illustration of the principle that 'a prosecutor may not become a defender'. For the usual eight garments contained gold thread: gold points an accusing finger at the Israelites, as that was the material they used to make the Golden Calf. (Rashi ad loc, based on Talmud Rosh Hashana 26a)
2. This is meant to illustrate the principle that the Divine Blessing is most effective when received in modesty, in quiet solitude. (See, for example, Kings I 19)
3. According to Hirsch, the goat designated 'for G-d' represents positive forces - goodness. The goat designated for the 'azazel' - the scapegoat - signifies negative forces - evil. That conveys a Torah teaching that no-one has the option of being neutral. Those who do not pursue a positive way of life will find themselves moving towards a wasteland of spiritual destruction.
4. The words 'lifnei Hashem' mean literally 'before G-d'. Yom Kippur only atones for those who repent and purify themselves before they stand before G-d on Yom Kippur. If they do, then G-d Himself will ensure that they 'shall be cleansed'.
5. The Kli Yakar derives from the words 'it shall be considered bloodshed' (17:4), that when a person kills an animal without a legitimate cause, he allowed himself to be influenced by the same bloodthirsty instincts that can cause people to commit murder - his cruel instincts have taken control over him.
6. The common link with the opening of the Ten Commandments (I am the L-rd your G-d), and the laws of sexual purity in this Parasha is to highlight the importance of sexual purity. Just as the nation can not exist as the Chosen People without acknowledging that G-d is the Almighty, so it also cannot exist as the Chosen People without following the rules of sexual purity contained in this chapter.
7. (a) The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) understands the words 'You shall live by them' (18:5) as emphasizing that preserving human life (with the exceptions of murder, adultery, and idolatry), takes precedence over Mitzva observance. One should live by the Mitzvot - not die for them. (b) The Ramban explains that 'living by' the Mitzvot is that people should work towards social harmony by respecting the rights and needs of other people. Only if society adheres to the laws 'between man and man' can people truly 'live' peacefully and harmoniously.
8. Rashi brings the following parable. The Holy Land is like a prince, a young man with a delicate constitution, who ate contaminated food. He cannot digest it, so he spewed it out. Similarly, the Holy Land cannot spiritually tolerate the violation of the Torah sexual norms (described in this chapter). When the Israelites slipped into that behavior, the Land indeed spewed them out. (See, for example, Ezekiel 16)
ADDITIONAL QUESTION ON PARASHAT ACHAREI MOT
The Talmud records that the goat was dispatched to the Azazel with every possible speed. A special raised ramp had to be placed to prevent the designated man being pushed the by the crowd who wanted the goat to reach the Azazel as soon as possible (Yoma 6:4). Once that journey had started, the people waited for signs that the goat had reached the Azazel and performed its destiny in effecting the kappara for Klal Yisrael. The authorities in the Talmud vary as to how this news was communicated. One opinion holds that the news traveled through a system of flags waved from posts along the route from the Azazel back to the Temple. Another said that a scarlet thread in the Temple miraculously turned white to show that G-d had wiped clean previous records of sin. (Yoma 6:8).
Why was so much emphasis placed on speed?
My attempt on this issue should be found on the Shema Yisrael website for 5760
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.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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