Parashat Hashavua for Vayeshev
Rabbi David Kunin
Jewish Community of Japan
Listening to Challenging Voices
I have often been asked over the past year if Tikkun Olam and the imperative of social justice are authentic expressions of the Jewish tradition. It has been suggested to me that the ritual mitzvot and simple Jewish survivial are true expressions of Judaism, while those that are labeled as ethical, are actually expressions of a liberal agenda, rather than true “Judaism.” It will not be surprising that I disagree with this sentiment, but rather consider both as equally authentic and important expressions of our tradition. This sentiment is shared rather loudly by Jewish prophets such as Amos and Isaiah and is the central message of the Haftarah for parshat Vayeishev, and of many others. It is also equally shared by our ancient rabbis who chose these haftorot, not only for regular Shabbatot, but also for the most important holiday of our year.
Right at the beginning of the haftarah, Amos challenges our complacency. Israel will be punished, he informs us, not for idolatry, adultery or even murder (these apparently God can forgive), but instead for our failures to help the destitute and the poor and for greed that caused the rich and powerful to take advantage of the helpless and to pervert justice. These sins, Amos teaches, are unforgivable. Every time I read this introduction, as well as the similarly powerful message of Isaiah, which we read on Yom Kippur, I experience a sense of despair. Why haven’t we improved? Why are our modern failures exactly the same as those of our ancestors?
Amos, however, is not content to just identify these ancient and modern failures. He adds a second inditement, which equally challenges our modern Jewish community. God, he tells us, sends prophets to warn and teach how we should live Torah in the world. But, instead of listening to them, “[we] commanded the prophets, saying: do not prophesy.” Then and now we refuse(d) to hear the messages that are so necessary for us to hear. Yet, this is exactly the role of the Jewish prophet in antiquity, and our rabbis and other religious leaders in the present. Prophets were not called by God to tell our ancestors what they wanted to hear. There were no doubt enough yes men and women for that. Instead, they told us what we needed to hear. That is still true for our religious leaders today. We need to have the courage to listen, even if they share messages that we are unready or unwilling to hear. We may not agree, but still we need to have the courage to listen.
A Hassidic rabbi was once asked why the messiah has not come today or yesterday. His answer is instructive. He suggested that the messianic age has not begun because of our refusal to change direction. The world will only be transformed when the ancient sins identified by Amos as unforgivable are not also the sins that characterize our own times. We need no longer to be the same today and tomorrow as we were yesterday.