Thursday, May 04, 2006

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Haftarot)

AHAREI: “Are You Not Like the Children of Kush?”

There is a certain confusion concerning the haftarot for this Shabbat. The original Ashkenazic practice was to read Amos 9:7-15 for Aharei Mot, and Ezekiel 22:1-16 for Kedoshim; however, when the two portions are combined, Amos 9 was read, even though the usual rule is that the later haftarah is read on such occasion. At some point, I suspect relatively recently, the two were switched, possibly in order to conform to the above-mentioned rule of thumb. (See Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 428, Ram”a & Mishnah Berura; and cf. Levush §493). The Sephardim also have a variety of customs: some read Amos 9:7-15 for Aharei, like the old Ashkenazic minhag, but concluding with the verse Ezek 22:16, while reading Ezekiel 20:2-20 for Kedoshim (thus R. Obadiah Yosef’s Sefer ha-Hafatarot); others read Ezek 22:1-16 for Aharei Mot, and 20:2-20 for Kedoshim (Ha-Tikkun ha-Meduyak). My source on this matter, Rav Yissachar Meir Mazuz, informs me that an entire article in the Torah journal Moriyah was devoted to this subject some years ago.

What is the nature of all these haftarot, and why were they chosen for these specific parshiyot? The passage from Amos, which is the shortest haftarah of the entire cycle, begins with the theologically very significant statement: “Are you not like the children of Kush [i.e., the Ethiopians] to Me, says the Lord? Did I not take Israel out of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” The prophet here seems to equate Israel with the other nations, saying that God’s providence and salvational power, expressed in the Exodus from Egypt, was not unique, but that He acts in the history of other nations as well. Where does this leave the chosenness of Israel? It is perhaps not a coincidence that the opening section of this book enumerates “three transgressions… and four” of a series of nations and city-states—Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, etc.—and continues, in the same vein, to specify those of Judah and then of Israel, which is the focus of his words (1:1-2:8).

The prophet goes on, from 9:8 on, to chastise “the sinful kingdom” for its sins, stating in unequivocal terms that God will destroy it from the face of the earth; however, he will not destroy the “house of Jacob” as such, but will “shake them up” among the nations, causing all the sinners within the nation to die. In brief, the message here is one of admonition and chastisement of the people, reminding them that they should not think that they are special, and certainly not to think that they are exempt from punishment: “those who say, the evil will not overtake us” (v. 10; an attitude occasionally encountered among contemporary Jews, both here and abroad).

From verse 11 on there is a sharp turn, the haftarah (and the Book of Amos) closing with a lyrical picture of the bucolic abundance of nature to be expected after the punishment of exile is spent. “The mountains will drip forth sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (v. 13); moreover, the bounty will be so great that the yield of one season will run into the next: “the plowman will overtake the reaper, and the one treading grapes he who sows.”

Both of these Torah portions are concerned with “abominations,” i.e., sexual wrongdoing, as well as containing more general admonitions against transgression, as well as at least alluding to the possibility that “the land shall spit you out.” One or more of these motifs are present in all three of the readings mentioned above; hence, it is almost a “toss-up” which haftarah belongs to which Torah portion.

Kedoshim: “Shall you surely Judge the bloody city”

Interesting, both haftarot from Ezekiel, Chapter 20 and 22, contain very similar phrases within their first few verses: “Shall you judge them [or: the bloody city]”… “make known to them their abominations.” These are among the harshest admonitions against the people of Israel and/or Jerusalem in all of biblical literature. Hence, there was a view among the Sages that these chapters, referred to as “hoda et Yerushalayim et to’avoteha,” were too harsh to be read publicly, and that to do so was somehow unseemly and even arrogant (see b. Megillah 25b; the same phase also appears in Ezekiel 16, which nevertheless serves as the haftarah to Shemot in the Yemenite rite). This is evidently the real reason for the custom of reading the haftarah from Amos (originally, Aharei Mot) when the two portions are joined, or when one of them coincides with Shabbat Rosh Hodesh—namely, to avoid reading these chapters insofar as possible. I find this a strange sort of rule: why did they chose this chapter as a haftarah in the first place if they didn’t want to read it?

Be that as it may: Ezekiel 22:1-16 is a short but powerful summary of all the abominations performed in the city of Jerusalem, called here “the city of blood”: from wanton bloodshed and the making of pagan images, through contempt of parents, accepting bribery, to adultery with ones neighbor’s wife and incest with sister and daughter-in-law, to profaning the Sabbath and oppressing the widow, orphan and stranger. All these things contaminate both the people themselves and the city in which they live; punishment shall surely follow. An unrelieved catalogue of wrongdoing; and, unlike Amos, without any “happy ending.” No wonder the Rabbis were reluctant to have this chapter read in public.

In the Sephardic variant for Kedoshim, Ezek 20:1-20, God recalls His long-standing account with the Jewish people. When He took them out of Egypt, to take them to ‘the most beautiful of all lands,” it was with the implicit understanding that they would cast off their pagan idols. They failed to do so; nevertheless, He did not destroy them then, so as not to profane His Name. Instead, while in the desert He gave them “laws and statutes” by which to live; but they failed to keep these either. He contemplated not bringing them into the land, but had pity on them, “for the sake of My Name, that it not be profaned.” In the end, He knows that He cannot threaten them with destruction. All he can do is call out to them, in great pain: “I am the Lord! Walk in my statutes! Do my laws! Sanctify my sabbaths, and let them be a sign between Me and yourselves!” (vv. 19-20)


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