Amos was a prophet who lived in the period just before the demise of the state of the ten northern tribes, known as “Israel.” Although things were doing well economically, he sternly warned the people that their actions would bring upon them a fate of destruction and exile. He especially rebuked the elite of the people for the low moral standard to which they had fallen.

The beginning of the haftarah is actually the culmination of a series of prophecies delivered in regard to many of the nation-states in the region. Due to their sins, most of which were perpetrated against the Jews, they would all soon fall under the conquest of the then rising superpower, Assyria.1 “Three rebellious sins” G‑d was willing to endure, but not when these sins amounted to four or more. (Another approach: G‑d will not punish a nation for its national wrongdoings unless they have repeated these for at least a fourth time.2) On the list of peoples chided by Amos were Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab. Last on the list were the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

The Jews in both states had been guilty of the three cardinal sins: idolatry, forbidden relationships and murder. But the primary sin of which they were guilty was that of corruption and injustice.3

The Jews had displayed the height of unappreciation. G‑d had elevated them both physically and spiritually. He brought them out of Egypt and led them to their land, while causing the most powerful of nations to fall before them. Spiritually, besides the general holiness that every Jew possesses, the Almighty gave His people the opportunity to attain a superior level of sanctity by becoming either a prophet or a nazirite. But people had profaned and ridiculed these very virtues, belittling the nazirites and harassing the prophets. It was because of this that G‑d would allow the enemy its victory. Even the most swift and mighty of warriors would not hold their ground when destruction would come.

Towards the end of the reading, the prophet gives a series of analogies to bring out his point. He speaks of a lion roaring and a bird falling into a trap. These occurrences, among others, would not happen unless there was a cause for them to transpire—the lion roaring because it finds prey, and the bird falling because it is caught in a trap set up by the hunter. In a similar way, the tragedy that would befall the Jews would be the effect of their wrongdoings. It for this that G‑d sent His prophets to warn the people, and they would surely convey this message without hesitation.

The connection to the Torah portion

Understanding the connection of the haftarah to our Torah portion requires some initial background. The ending of the first verse in the haftarah can be translated from the Hebrew in one of two ways:

1. “For selling a righteous man for silver, and a destitute one in order to lock [fields].” In this meaning, the prophet talks about the transgressions of the judges at that time. If a poor man had a field which adjoined that of a judge, the judge would rule in his disfavor, thus compelling him to sell his field. Now, being in desperation, the man would have to sell it for less than usual price. The judge would in turn purchase the field cheaply, thus enabling himself to further expand his own property.4

2. “For selling a righteous man for silver, and a destitute one for the sake of a pair of shoes”. (The last Hebrew word of the verse is naalayim (נעלים), the root of which can mean either “lock” or “shoe.”) According to this meaning, the prophet is describing the total corruption that prevailed in the land at the time: one could bribe a judge and get a favorable verdict for the price of a pair of shoes.

The Midrash tells us that this second meaning of the verse is in fact a description of what happened at the sale of Joseph many centuries earlier. The brothers had indeed “sold an innocent man for silver and a destitute one for the sake of a pair of shoes,” for according to the Midrash, after selling Joseph for twenty silver pieces, each brother took two pieces and bought with them a pair of shoes.5 It is for this reason that we read this particular segment of the prophets for this Parshah.6

We find this sale of Joseph for the sake of shoes being invoked many years after this, as well. It was during Roman times that ten of the greatest Jewish sages were murdered in the most horrific of ways by the Roman emperor. These sages became known as the “Ten Martyrs,” who served as the inspiration for Jewish martyrdom through the ages. We read their story in the liturgy of Tisha B’Av and in the Mussaf prayer of Yom Kippur.

The story as told in the Midrash begins with the Roman Emperor summoning these ten sages to come before him. Before they came, he filled his chamber with shoes. When they came, he told them that he intended to make up for the sin of selling Joseph by killing ten of the Jewish sages, who would correspond to the ten brothers who were involved in the sale—and to impress this upon them, he had had his entire chamber filled with shoes. The riveting account in the Midrash continues by telling how the high priest, Rabbi Yishmael, ascended to the heavenly realms and asked if this plan of the emperor was indeed a decree from above. He was answered in the affirmative. There had not been a group of ten people as holy and righteous as the ten brothers of Joseph until that time, and it had been decreed on high that they were to atone for that misdeed. Upon hearing this, the ten sages accepted their fate.7

“Only you did I love above all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities”

Rashi and a number of other commentaries understand the verse in a reciprocal context. G‑d had extended Himself in an unparalleled way to the Jewish people. Sinning in the way they had done was a tremendous ingratitude, for which reason G‑d would particularly take retribution of the Jewish people.

Others, however, understand the verse in a context of expectation. The Jewish people are held to a higher standard. A king will expect far more from those who are in his close circle then from the primitive villagers under his rule. Being selected to a certain position carries with it a higher level of responsibility and consequence. In a similar way, the Jewish people were chosen to be the recipients of G‑d’s miracles and revelation. They were therefore held to a higher standard than all other nations of the world.8

“For the L‑rd G‑d does nothing unless He has revealed His secret to His servants, the prophets”

At the time when prophecy was accessible, this was readily understood: at every major and even minor event in history there was a prophet present, who would interpret the event in the manner G‑d wanted them to be understood.

After prophecy was removed from the Jewish people, the meaning in this verse became understood in the broader sense: Divine inspiration rests on a tzaddik, a holy person. It is worth anyone’s while to follow their advice and direction, as their perception is inspired by Ruach Hakodesh—the holy spirit.9

It is worth noting, however, that as far as recent times are concerned, this biblical statement may be taken more literally:

As the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidut were being revealed, the tzaddikim and rebbes of those generations became known as miracle workers and “seers” of literally biblical proportions. Hundreds and thousands of stories are known about the Baal Shem Tov and his students, who performed miracles and were able to see and know well beyond the capacity of an average human being. In our day and age, numerous individuals, as well as our people at large, experienced the incredibly prophetic words and advise of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on many occasions.

In his Epistle to Yemen, Maimonides writes10 that he has it by tradition that by the year 4976 (1215–16) “prophecy will return to Israel.” “It is beyond doubt,” he continues, “that the return of prophecy will be a prelude to the coming of Moshiach.”11