Friday, December 8, 2017

Haftarat Va-Yeishev: Be a Candle

It is really hard to focus on just one topic this week. With everything going on in politics, in Israel, and so many other issues - not to mention that I just attended a very thought-provoking conference of Conservative Jews in Atlanta - it's tough to
zero in on ONE thing I want to say. Oh, and Chanukah is starting this week too... Soooo, what should we discuss? Well, two points in the Haftarah this week jumped out at me, so I guess that's as good a place to start as any. This week, it is the prophet Amos who is yelling at us. And no, it's not in your head; many of the Haftarot do indeed consist of one prophet or another chastising Israel for their misdeeds. Keeping to BOTH the Halachic (legal) requirements of the laws AND the ethical expectations was not, shall we say, a strong suit of our ancient ancestors...

In the first verse of our Haftarah, Amos lambastes the people because "they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals" (2:6). This, by the way, is also one of the links between our Torah portion and its Haftarah. Just as Joseph's brothers sold him
into slavery, and suffered for such a heinous crime, so too the Israelites will pay for not protecting the weak and innocent. Today, we certainly find ourselves debating who is REALLY looking out for the poor and those in the working class. It is popular to describe oneself as defending the defenseless against some specter of oppression, but Amos is particularly angry at those who would exploit the impoverished for their own financial gain. This is truly a desecration of Biblical law; both the literal meaning of our mitzvot as well as the moral spirit of the Torah.

In the next chapter, Amos explains why God is especially incensed, and why the Israelites are being held to such a high standard: "You alone have I singled out, of all the families on earth; that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities"
(3:2). When you are called to a special relationship, to a position of leadership and esteem, it DOES come with responsibilities as well. Your conduct is scrutinized, and the pressure IS higher. Whether you want it to be or not. To me, our chosenness as Jews does not mean we are "better" than anyone else. But we hold ourselves to a code, and we try to live our lives with integrity, compassion, and meaning. When fellow Jews are celebrated in the news, we feel immense pride and closeness... and when they are called out for misbehavior, criminal activity, and moral bankruptcy, we all cringe and groan collectively.

Amos' prophecies foretold the eventual destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. Later prophets would chastise the remaining Southern Kingdom of Judah for its own offenses, but eventually they too were punished with ruination in 586 BCE. These two stories - as well as
the story of Chanukah, which also focuses on a desecrated Temple and its rededication - remind us of the importance of Israel and Jerusalem. But they also remind us how fragile and impermanent even the strongest of places and ideas can be. As we prepare for the upcoming Festival of Lights, let us remember to be a "light" ourselves, a candle of wisdom, enlightenment, progress, and justice, but also of humility, kindness, compassion, and love. Amos reminds us that success is fleeting and false, if obtained on the backs of the vulnerable and innocent. Sometimes winning isn't really winning, if the cost is too high. Let the candles of Chanukah remind us to focus on what really matters, and to seek to bring more good into a world that sorely needs it.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Carlos Delgado on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Christian75 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dov Harrington on Wikimedia Commons

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