Haftarah Vayeishev: Are We Listening?
Amos 2:6 – 3:8 It often seems as if Israel will never fully recover from the sin of the sale of Joseph. When we read the story of the Ten Martyrs
on the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Av we connect the death of the ten leaders of Israel to the sin of the ten brothers who participated in the sale. Amos, the tree doctor called to be a prophet, almost nine centuries after the sin, cries out; “Should I not exact retribution for the fourth (sin), for their having sold a righteous man for silver, and a destitute one for the sake of a pair of shoes?” Why does this one horrible act of ten men continue to haunt us for so long?
It is more troublesome when we read the text closely and realize that only four of the brothers were actively involved in this dastardly deed, the other six are almost passive participants. Yet, all ten are culpable. Even Reuben who is described as, “intending to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father,” is counted among the ten! Six were passive. One intended to rescue Joseph, and yet all ten are culpable. In fact, all Israel is culpable; all Israel suffered a terrible loss with the torture and execution of the Ten Martyrs by the Romans. We lost our spiritual leaders. We, and even the ministering angels, were confused how God could allow such a tragedy to befall us.
The story of the sale of Joseph pervades Jewish thought and prayer and yet, we know nothing of Joseph’s feelings while it was all happening. He was silent from the first moment of confrontation until many years later when he finally speaks to Potiphar’s wife. We are not even certain who pulled Joseph from the pit, or who sold the young man to whom. We have a story that remains a constant part of Israel’s consciousness and yet the Torah is stingy with its words. So much of what happened is vague. Why did Amos choose this story to empower his cry against the Northern Kingdom? We know that his words were heard and that they shook the power structure of the kingdom. Amos stood in Bet El, in the temple of Jeroboam the seat of power of Amos’ king, Rechavam. Amaziah, the chief priest of the temple pleaded with the king to exile the prophet. The priest threatened the prophet and urged him to run to Jerusalem. There was no place for Amos, his words, or his mission in Amaziah’s prevue.
Prophecy itself was a threat to Amaziah and the king; “From among your children I raised up prophets…but you commanded the prophets saying, ‘Do not prophesy!” (2:11-12) Prophecy itself was the issue, “For my Lord will do nothing without having revealed his secret to His servants the prophets. A lion has roared, who would not fear? My Master, the Lord has spoken, who would not prophesy?
There is a poignant moment when the same brothers reflect on their sin; (Genesis 42:21) “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us.” The brothers do not blame the sale of Joseph for their problems. They do not condemn the suffering they caused Jacob. They do not point the finger at their original intention to murder their brother. They reflect on that horrible episode and regret most their ignoring the young man’s cries. (See Rashi Genesis 37:27; “And his brothers heard”.)
Amos stood in the Temple in Bet El and cried out against the cruelty of the leaders. No one wanted to even hear his words. The prophet’s voice grated against the nerves of those he addressed. They did not want him to speak. They were not interested in truth; it was too uncomfortable. Amos may have been a messenger of God, but they chose to ignore the message. Their ears were shut closed. God was speaking. They chose not to listen. The Northern Kingdom, repeated the sins of their ancient ancestors, the brothers who sold Joseph. Even the brothers, who were passive in planning the wicked act, were responsible, for they too shut their ears to Joseph’s cries after they tossed him into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions. Amos roared as a lion, but no one feared him, because they made themselves deaf to his voice. Amos was the shofar-alarm (Amos 3:6) but the people did not tremble; they did not even hear him. They chose not to hear him.
We can never avoid responsibility for actively choosing deafness. God is articulate. We are hard of hearing. At times, we shut out His cries for justice and righteousness. The simple messages carry far too much meaning to leave us feeling comfortable. The sale of Joseph continues to haunt us, as do the words of Amos: Are we listening? Are we paying attention? We stand just at the ledge of Joseph’s pit. His cries of anguish echo in the cries of all who suffer, all who are lost, all who lack safety and security. Joseph’s cries reverberate in all the evil that is occurring in the world. Again and again, Amos asks us “Are we listening?”