Section Selection and Its Confusions

(This haftarah is read for Kedoshim when the two portions are separate, but Aharei is Shabbat haGadol.)

This week’s haftarah reads the last 9 verses of the book of Amos.  I note the length because the brevity is so striking—we pick up the middle of a section, and then read only a few verses.  In addition, the rest of the section, which is only eight verses, seems to echo the messages of the section we do read.  Why not read the whole thing?

Another immediate question is what makes this haftarah so important that we make sure to read it every year.  When two sections of Torah are read together, the general practice is to read the haftarah for the second, but when we read Aharei Mot and Kedoshim together, we read this haftarah, even though it is for Aharei Mot, the first of the two.  In addition, when Aharei Mot is Shabbat haGadol, we read “Halo Kivnei” on Shabbat Kedoshim.

The first four verses of the haftarah promise exile to the Jews as a whole and death to the sinners among them.  The commentators debate exactly which sins will bring this about, based in large part on the opening metaphor of the section, where God calls us “like children of Africans.”

Depending on whether you prefer Rashi, Nachmanides, Ibn Ezra, or Radak, Amos may be berating us for assuming we are inherently special, a view supported by God’s pointing out that He can and has taken other people out of another nation; or that we were wrong not to recognize how specially God treats us, as shown by God’s destroying other nations when their time for punishment comes, while maintaining our survival even as we are being punished.

Whichever way we go—and there are others, such as seeing it as a complaint about our faithlessness, like spouses who fail to remain faithful in their marriages—the complaint revolves around our not paying proper attention to the nature of our relationship with God, as also stressed by God’s promising to punish in particular those sinners who say, “The bad will not come because of me.”

A Pause for a Tirade on Providence, Punishment, and Productive Growth

We will get to the positive aspects of this haftarah in a moment, even though many of Amos’ listeners might have turned off after hearing this part, in the way people do when they do not like what they are hearing.  Before we do, we should pause to absorb the complaints fully.  God is bothered here less by the Jews’ specific sins than by their refusal to recognize God’s mechanism for running the world.

First, they pay insufficient attention to the uniqueness of the Jewish people (for good and for bad).  In the current context, they do not accept that God punishes the Jews differently than other nations, that while other nations will have no punishment for extended time, but then disappear from the world stage, the Jews will get punished repeatedly (and painfully), but that that punishment is an example of our guarantee of a continuing and irrevocable connection to God.

Second, they are too quick to excuse their behavior, to minimize its importance, to reject the possibility that their personal sins could lead to disaster, trouble, or tragedy.  

I raise these issues because those attitudes seem to me both to explain how this haftarah connects to the Torah readings and also because they are attitudes prevalent in our times, I think to our detriment.  On the first question, the Torah reading warns us to keep the laws of incestuous relationships carefully, so that the Land not vomit us out by virtue of our defiling it (the verses raise a whole other set of issues, the question of how and when the Land itself responds to our sins, a blurring of the line between physics and metaphysics that should be discussed, but not here).

If so, the haftarah complains about people who reject the possibility that those kinds of punishments occur, who lose the opportunity to even recognize God’s punishment and react appropriately to it.  Such people will eventually be killed, lost to the future of Judaism, and will never even understand what happened.

Applications to Today?

Which brings us to wonder about our times, when people of all walks of life, but especially observant Jews, deny the possibility of connecting the sufferings of our people (or of other people) to any actions we/they may or may not have committed.  Our haftarah, especially as read by tradition, makes it odd to today see people who picture themselves as fully observant, on good terms with God, but relinquish or reject this fundamental principle of God’s action in the world.

An example that has always struck me as interesting.  A few months after Hurricane Katrina struck, wiping out (among other places) the Ninth District of New Orleans, the city was not back to full strength, but did have tens of thousands of people living there.  Even so, the New York Times reported, not one murder had occurred in New Orleans since the hurricane, where pre-Katrina New Orleans had had a very high murder rate, and the Ninth District was the most deadly region in the country.

I don’t need to claim to understand why Katrina struck (if, indeed, there was a reason; there may be fully natural disasters for all I know) to wonder how the residents of a city that hosts the most murderous region in the country could be so positive that God could not possibly be sending them a message.

Don’t Forget the Positive

The flip side is that those who take God’s messages to heart are also told that we will have tremendous economic bounty (as much of the world already does), be returned to our Land, rebuild destroyed cities, and establish a permanent and unbreakable residence in the Land.  Wiping away the sinners’ and their incorrect perspectives of how God works is a vital prerequisite to reaching that blessed time, but it will come and be bountiful beyond imagination (or beyond theirs—I think we’re seeing a lot of it already).

One last thought: The haftarah is the source of the phrase that God will re-establish David’s fallen sukkah, a reference to his monarchy.  Radak explains that we call a monarchy a sukkah because it protects the nation; we see a Davidic kingship as a return to a time when our government will protect us in all the ways we need, a Sukkah that will provide comfort, shade and security.