Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thoughts on Vayeshev

1. The original post

Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Israel, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes... (Amos 2:6)

It is commonly assumed that the Vayeshev haftarah (previously discussed here) is chosen because of this verse, which is taken to refer to the sale of Yosef.

Just today I thought of a compelling reason why Yosef’s sale CANNOT be what Amos had in mind when he said this prophecy. That does not mean the haftarah is a bad choice: Yosef WAS a righteous person (at least after the sale, from what we see), who WAS sold for silver, and it WAS a transgression, and it is fitting to recall this after reading the story of what happened to Yosef. But at the same time, if we want to understand Amos, we should be aware that this is not what Amos had in mind.

To see why, let us look at a selection of the verses
in Amos
preceding the haftarah:

"For thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Damascus, yea, for four, I will not reverse it...
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Gaza, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Tyre, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Edom, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of the children of Ammon, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Moab, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Judah, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…"

This is a list of lots of different ancient Middle Eastern nations. After each one, it lists a few "war crimes" or other various sins that the nations are known to have committed, and then describes the punishment God will visit upon them as a result.

The last two nations in this list are Judah and Israel. Amos lived in the period of the divided kingdom, when "Judah" consisted of the tribes of Judah, Binyamin, Shimon, and perhaps part of Dan.

Meanwhile "Israel" consisted of the remaining tribes in the north. This meant the tribes of Gad and Reuven near the Dead Sea; the tribes of Zevulun, Yissachar, Naftali, Dan, and Asher in the Galilee; and Efraim and Menashe taking up the whole coastal plain, Shomron, and almost all of Transjordan. The Galilee tribes generally did an incomplete job of conquering the Canaanites, while Gad and Reuven were small and peripheral. Efraim and Menashe took up about half the area of the whole kingdom – moreover, the more central, secure, and powerful half of the kingdom. It is no surprise that the entire northern kingdom is sometimes referred to poetically as "Efraim" (as in "Haben yakir li efraim"), or as "Yosef" (Yechezkel 37) – Yosef of course being the father of both Efraim and Menasheh.

When the prophet Amos, in our haftarah, criticized the nation of "Israel" for selling the righteous, we may assume he was foremost referring to Efraim and Menasheh, who dominated the kingdom of Israel. But it would be quite strange to blame the sale of Yosef on the tribes of Efraim and Menasheh, who were themselves descendants of Yosef. That would mean blaming the victim (or his descendants) rather than the perpetrators, which I think is unreasonable, so Amos must be talking about a crime or crimes involving someone else.

2. An addition, made two years later (November 2013)

As you might expect, I end up discussing this idea at the same time each year. This time it was with my Friday night host - AS. But afterwards I felt something was incomplete. The verse says that Israelites "sell the righteous for silver". Why specify that they sell the righteous (of whom Yosef HaTzadik would be a great example)? Isn't it wrong to sell any human being, righteous or not?

The answer is no. Selling an evil person into (temporary) slavery was pretty common and entirely justified - if they were a thief (Shemot 22:2). The verse uses the word "tzadik" to indicate that they also sold innocent people into slavery, which is a very serious crime (Shemot 21:16). The word "tzadik" here means "innocent" (as in Devarim 25:1) - not "righteous" in the sense of necessarily being morally near-perfect.

Thanks to AS for helping clarify the linguistic aspects of this.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thoughts on Vayishlach

Shall our sister be treated like a prostitute? (34:31)

A prostitute is generally understood to be someone who takes money in return for sex. True, the word "znut" can refer to promiscuity in general, but one might still wonder whether "zonah" is the most appropriate term for an unwilling rape victim.

But if we look closer at the proposal the city offered to Yaakov's family, perhaps we can understand why Dina's case was in fact similar to prostitution, and why the rhetorical question was not just imprecise rhetoric by angry young men.

The proposal goes as follows: "Please give [Dina] to [Shechem] as a wife. And marry among us: your daughters will be given to us and our daughters you will take for yourselves. And dwell with us: the land will be before you, dwell and do business and take hold of it." (34:8-10)

Besides the part about marrying together, this proposal contains two parts: Shechem gets Dina, and Yaakov's family gets the opportunity to do business.

A trade of Dina for business opportunities does look exactly like prostitution. No wonder, then, why Yaakov's sons reply so viciously to the deal, and why they killed the entire male population, not just Shechem. They were reacting to the proposal just as much as the act of rape itself.

This logic does not mean the mass killing was necessarily correct - for one thing, Yaakov objects to it (and at the end of his life, apparently not only on practical grounds) - but it does allow us to understand where the motivation for the killing came from.

Yaakov said to his household and all who were with him: "Remove the foreign gods that are among you." (35:2)
They gave to Yaakov all the foreign gods that were in their hands, and the earrings that were in their ears, and Yaakov buried them.... (35:4)

These verses raise two questions with me. 1) Why would Yaakov's household, which one would assume to be monotheistic, be in possession of idols? 2) Yaakov asked for the destruction of idols; why did the group give up their earrings as well, which Yaakov apparently did not ask for?

I think there is a common answer to both questions. It flows from the fact that at this point, Yaakov's sons had just conquered the city of Shechem, and (34:27) taken its plunder. One would expect that that plunder included any valuable objects in the city - and idols, often made out of precious metals, would certainly seem worth taking.

The Torah's attitude toward this, though, is not approving. Speaking of the later conquest by the Israelites, the Torah says: "The idols of their gods you shall burn in fire. You shall not desire gold and silver upon them and take for yourself, lest you be ensnared in it, for it is an abomination of Hashem your God." (Devarim 7:25) One might be tempted to take gold and silver idols in order to use the gold and silver, but the Torah later prohibits this.

Perhaps, then, Yaakov's sons took whatever idols they found in Shechem. As members of a third-generation monotheistic family, it would have been obvious to them that idols were not for worshipping, but not so obvious that idols could not be melted down and used for other purposes. Perhaps, of the idols they found, they took a few of them and fashioned their gold or silver into earrings, while holding onto the remaining idols until a good use for them could be found.

Yaakov may not have known what jewelry his family wore or where it came from. But when his family was implicitly told that not only worship but use of idols was forbidden, they realized that their jewelry had to be given up along with the intact idols.