Parashat B’midbar 5781


13 May 2021 – 2 Sivan 5781

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

‘From there I will give her back her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Disturbance
The Door of Hope.’
(Hosea 2:17)

The first of the twelve ‘minor’ prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Hosea, preached to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE, sometime before the Assyrian Conquest in 722 BCE. Israel had lost her outlying lands to Assyria and constantly turned to Egypt and Assyria for help. Hosea scorned these appeals and the people’s faithless wandering after the ba’alim. Like Elijah before him, Hosea attacked those who built shrines in their backyards and worshipped indiscriminately under every tree or on the top of every hill. Idolatry was the cause of criminality and immorality, he said.

Hosea 2 is the Haftarah that is read with B’Midbar, the first parashah of the Book of Numbers. As Numbers begins with a census of Israel’s warriors, so the Haftarah opens with a verse that compares the number of the people of Israel to the sands of the sea, ‘not to be measured or counted’ (Hosea 2:1). The prophet veers between a vision of the future, when the people of Judah in the southern kingdom and Israel in the north will be united and called ‘the children of the Living God,’ and a bitterly critical attack against the conduct of Israel: ‘Ah, Israel has balked like a stubborn cow.’

The most difficult part of this attack lies in the imagery the prophet employs of God and Israel. God is a wronged husband, Israel an adulterous wife; God has sent her away because of her ‘whorings’, He strips her naked and exposes her as on the day she was born. He makes her like the wilderness, turns her into a dry land and kills her with thirst. Her children are shown no love, for they are the children of whoring. Their mother acted shamefully by going after other lovers.

This ‘husband-God’ shows little compassion for the wife he has rejected. He is disgusted by her idolatrous practices: divination rituals, involvement with cultic prostitutes and kissing of molten images.

In an extraordinary rhetorical device, this God tells Hosea himself to take a wife of ‘whoredom’ and to beget children of ‘whoredom.’ And Hosea’s marital experience becomes a mirror of God’s own experience with Israel. His wife is named Gomer (‘finished’), his children ‘Lo ruhamah’ (‘not accepted’) and ‘Lo Ammi’ (‘not my people’). God will no longer accept the House of Israel or pardon them, His people are no longer His people, and He is no longer their God. And if Hosea can send away his wife, then God, too, will dismiss the people of Israel.

And yet, despite the brutal imagery, there is also a compelling message of reconciliation and love in the Book of Hosea. The forty years in the wilderness are seen as a time of courtship between God and Israel, the place where God entices His people and speaks tenderly to their heart. ‘From there I will give her back her vineyards and make the Valley of Disturbance the Door of Hope; there she shall respond as when she was young, when she came up out of Egypt’ (1:17).

It is this verse that speaks to us painfully in our current time, as we witness the tragic events taking place in Jerusalem, throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank. What did Hosea mean when he referred to Emek Achor – ‘the Valley of Disturbance’? What troubles was he referring to – the divided kingdoms and hostility between Israel and Judah, unrest on the streets, abuse of power, violence and killings? Was he attacking the leadership of Israel – ‘the officers of Judah have acted like shifters of field boundaries’, moving the boundary markers of the fields, violating moral and ethical standards of behaviour?

Our hearts grieve as we hear and read of the loss of life, the terror and trauma, the untold damage that is inflicted on children and families, the disruptions to daily life on both sides. The Valley of Disturbance is not yet the Door of Hope.

Here we can come together to share our own anxiety and disquiet and pray for a turn in the tide of these tragic affairs; we can urge our own government and the Israeli Embassy to speak against violence, to restore calm. But a lid placed on the disturbances of these past weeks, a quenching of the conflagrations, a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, still would not turn the vale of trouble into a gateway of hope.

The cistern is empty and a new leadership, within Israel and Palestine is needed urgently to broker peace. Ephraim is stricken, its stock is withered, it can produce no fruit, unless there is rest, unless there is acknowledgement of pain, loss and hurt on both sides.

Israel and Palestine may not be able to embrace the words of espousal and love in Hosea – ‘I will betroth you to me for ever’ (2:21), but surely, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we can hope that leaders will arise to embrace the prophet’s vision of righteousness and justice, goodness and mercy and the Valley of Disturbance will become the Door of Hope.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach.

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