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Justice and Sanctity in the Torah

As I pointed out in a previous series of articles on PJ Media, it is customary in Orthodox synagogues to read a portion of the Five Books of Moshe from a traditionally hand-written scroll. These readings are identified as the sidra (Aramaic for “order”) or parasha (Hebrew for “division”). These readings, which take place every sabbath and Jewish holiday, are followed by a reading from Nach, as the rest of the Hebrew Bible is called, which is in some way linked to the general subject of the weekly parasha. This series is intended to explore these supplemental readings, which are termed Haftara, or “taking leave” of the Torah reading.

This week’s parasha begins the story of Yosef, whose story will occupy the rest of the Book of Genesis. In it, we learn of the conflict that arose between Yosef and his brothers, a conflict which led to his being sold by them into slavery in Egypt. The haftara to this parasha is Amos II, 6 - III, 8).

Amos was an older contemporary of the prophets Hoshea and Yisha’yahu (“Isaiah”), living and teaching during the reign of Yerov’am (“Jeroboam”) II, King of the northern kingdom of Israel. Early in his career, Yerov’am II succeeded in subduing Israel’s enemies in Syria, Mo’av, and Ammon. He brought those pagan nations under tribute to Israel and initiated a lengthy period of peace and prosperity in the northern kingdom. However, it was also a time of increasing influence of the more numerous subject nations upon Israel, a time in which the standards of Torah observance were greatly debased and the ethics of the surrounding world accepted in their place.

This is why Amos, though his origin lay in the southern kingdom of Yehuda, saw his calling in Yerov’am’s realm. Amos took his cue from the Torah’s juxtaposition of qedusha (“holiness”) and tzedeq (“justice”). Qedoshim tihyu, the Torah enjoins us, ki qadosh Ani Ha-Shem Elo-heichem (“You shall be holy, for I, Ha-Shem your G-d, am holy,” Leviticus XIX, 2) and then relates all of the principles of justice and morality to that commandment.

The connection of our haftara to our parasha is found at the beginning, when Amos chastises Israel ‘al michram bakesef tzaddiq (“for their sale for silver of a tzaddiq;” II, 6). The Rabbis see this as an oblique reference to the sale of Yosef, known throughout Jewish literature as Yosef haTzaddiq (“Yosef the Just/Righteous”).

He lays out a thorough indictment of the moral failings in the northern kingdom of his day: greedy selfishness; sexual looseness; engaging in the foul, idolatrous rites which characterized the Canaanites in their day, as well as their contemporary neighbors, corrupting even those who sought sanctity. They were vederch ‘anavim yattu ... lema‘an challel eth shem qodshi (“turning away the path of the humble” -- humility being a foundational necessity of the Torah way of life -- “in order to profane My holy name,” ibid., 7). All of these practices are enjoined, as I have already noted, in parshath Qedoshim, which begins with the quotation from Leviticus above.