The haftarah for this week is taken from the final verses of the book of Amos. This book is one of the twelve “minor” books of the prophets, brought together in what is known as Trei Asar (“twelve” in Aramaic). The Talmud1 explains that due to their small size, there was a risk that they would be lost over time if they were made into separate biblical books. To ensure their preservation, they were combined into one book.

Amos lived in the days of Jeroboam II, king of Israel. At the time, the state of the Ten Tribes was experiencing an economic boom. Many lands that had once been under the rule of Kings David and Solomon were reconquered by Jeroboam, and these lands were paying taxes to the Israelite state. Commerce was flourishing, and many Jews had made their way to riches. Spiritually, however, there was much to be desired. Amos’s sharp words are directed both at the neglect of commitment to G‑d and at the abuse of social standing. The beginning of his book is directed in admonishment towards Israel’s neighboring nations, after which he turns inward in rebuke of his own people. Although most of his book is quite stern, Amos ends with with prophecies of a bright future, this to be realized with the coming of Moshiach.

Jews and Ethiopians

The opening verse of the haftarah reads as follows: “‘Are you not to Me like the children of Ethiopians, O children of Israel?’—the words of G‑d. ‘Have I not brought up Israel from the land of Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?’”

To understand these words, Rashi offers the following unique explanation:

The Jewish people had not been the only people to experience an exodus from the tyranny of another nation. Such a liberation was experienced once before this time, and was going to happen at least once after. The book of Deuteronomy2 describes how the nation of Caphtor invaded the land of Avvim (a Philistine clan), destroyed them and took over their territory. Later, however, in the book of Joshua, five Philistine governors are enumerated in the region, plus the Avvim. What had happened to the rest of the Philistines at the time of the invasion of Caphtor? The reality was, says Rashi, that the Caphtorim had actually conquered all of these small states, but G‑d had enabled the five major Philistine city-states to break out of the shackles of Caphtor and regain their autonomy.

The other example of liberation invoked by the verse is “Aram from Kir.” This was to happen in the future. As part of the Assyrian conquest, the nation of Aram was exiled to a place called Kir. The verse indicates here that in time to come, the exiled Arameans would be liberated from their exile and return to their homeland.

So the Jewish liberation from Egypt was not unique in its own sense. Other nations had, and would, experience something similar. The thing which set apart the Jewish story from any other is that G‑d had liberated the Jews so that they might be “His” people in this world. They were to live as a holy nation, and thus set an example for the rest of humanity. It seems, however, that the Jews in the days of Amos were smug and assured that G‑d would come to their aid just by their virtue of being Jewish. Had G‑d not shown favor towards the Jews in liberating them from Egypt? The prophet warned them against this fallacy: “You are just like the Ethiopians,” said Amos, tossing out an example from one of the larger nations in the region. If there is nothing in your actions that set you apart from other people, then you cannot expect G‑d to treat you any differently either.

(Although the comparison to the Ethiopians seems to be random, Rashi explains that the verse specifically chose this comparison to prefigure a related statement uttered by a later prophet, Jeremiah. In his bitterness about the actions of the people, Jeremiah bemoaned the fact that their sins had become so ingrained that it seemed the Jews could never separate themselves from them. The Ethiopians had particularly dark skin, and thus Jeremiah laments, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin color, or a leopard his spots? So too, can you, in whom evil is ingrained, do good?”3 It was this reference to the Ethiopians that Amos wished to evoke when using them as the comparative nation.)

Most of the other biblical commentaries differ with Rashi. They, on the contrary, understand this verse to actually be speaking of the uniqueness of the Jewish people as opposed to all other nations. One of the most poignant explanations in this vein is suggested by the Malbim:

The comparison to the dark-skinned Ethiopian is used as a metaphor for the inability of the Jew to be dissolved and assimilated into other nations. Just like a person with dark skin will always be recognized among lighter-skinned people, so to would the Jews always be seen as different in any society they may find themselves in. It is in this context that the second part of the verse is to be read: “Have I not brought up Israel from the land of Egypt?” Even after two centuries in Egypt, the Jewish people were still set apart from the Egyptians, which made it possible for them to be brought out as a discernible nation. By contrast, however, “the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir,” although they may have (or will in the future) technically return(ed) to their homelands, it is certain they did not/will not return as the nation they were when they were exiled. They had totally assimilated in exile and morphed into a foreign identity. Even if one would seek to redeem them as the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, there would simply be no one who would identify as such a nation any longer!

To the Malbim, this theme is continued in the words of the next verse: “Behold, the eyes of the L‑rd G‑d are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from upon the face of the earth; but I will not destroy the house of Jacob, says G‑d.” The kingdom will be destroyed; but what would set the Jewish people apart is that their identity as the “people of Jacob” will remain intact regardless.

A Holy People

The opening verse of the haftarah constitutes its connection to the portion of Acharei (and Kedoshim). A central subject matter of Parshat Acharei, and which continues into Parshat Kedoshim, is that which the Torah identifies as setting the Jews apart from the actions of the other nations at the time. Both before and after its discussion of the forbidden relationships, the Torah warns the people that they need to remain distinct both from the nation from which they had come from (Egypt) and from the nations with whom they were about to become neighbors (the Canaanites): “Like the practices of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do; and like the practices of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes.”

What remains as the consensus of all the commentaries (Rashi, Malbim and all other major biblical exegetes) is that the opening verse of the haftarah calls upon the Jews to remember their unique calling—the calling which is the mission statement for the formation and the eternal continuity of the Jewish people.