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The story ranks as one of the strangest in Tanach, if not the most strange. And it is found in this week’s haftarah.

A prophet of Hashem is commanded to marry a prostitute. You read those words correctly. How could such a righteous, pure and holy person, a prophet of Hashem, be given such a command? How does this possibly jive with the values of the Torah?

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Here’s the background from the first perek of Hoshea, based on Pesachim 87a.

Hashem told Hoshea that the Jewish People, His children, had sinned and He expected Hoshea to plead for compassion on their behalf. Hashem wanted to hear something along the lines of, “They are not merely Your children but they are the children of Your beloved Avrahom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, thus treat them with sympathy.” However, instead of asking Hashem for mercy, Hoshea tells Hashem that the entire world is His and He should exchange them for another nation.  Hashem decides to teach Hoshea why that is not possible.

He tells Hoshea to go marry a prostitute and have children from her. Hashem will then tell him to divorce her. Hoshea will feel connected to her and be unable to do so. Then, Hoshea will understand why Hashem cannot separate Himself from Klal Yisrael.

Hoshea marries a woman named Gomer. They have three children together, and despite being unsure as to whether or not they are his, Hoshea loves her and them. He then understands why Hashem still loves Bnei Yisrael, despite their infidelity to Him.

Hashem says to him, “You see how attached you are to your wife and children, how then could you have suggested that I exchange Klal Yisrael for another nation?” Hoshea realizes he sinned and begins to pray for himself. Hashem tells him to first pray for Klal Yisrael whom he had betrayed and failed to defend. Hoshea prays for and then blesses Bnei Yisrael with the blessing with which our haftarah begins (Hoshea 2:1), “The numbers of the Jewish nation will be as much as the sand which cannot be measured.”

There is a great debate as to whether this story actually took place or is simply a metaphor, a prophetic vision shown to Hoshea by Hashem.

We find this discussion regarding many midrashim; not all midrashim are to be taken literally. The Rambam writes of this extensively in his introduction to Perek Cheilek, the last chapter in Sanhedrin. He even says that those who promote a literal understanding, especially those that seem to paint Torah in a strange light, are actually desecrating Hashem’s Name. Rather than exhibiting praiseworthy faith in what Chazal are saying, it distorts and confuses. Many others affirm what the Rambam states, including the Maharal in many places and the Ramchal in his essay on midrash. (Among other places, the Ramchal’s essay is printed in the back of Rav Aharon Feldman’s The Juggler and the King, a book dedicated to explaining the stories of Rabbah bar Bar Chana [Bava Basra 73a], according to the Vilna Gaon’s non-literal approach.)

For example, if people interpret a midrash about rocks arguing literally, according to the Rambam they are causing disrespect for the Torah, even if their intentions are noble since they attribute a superficial and even strange meaning to the words of Chazal. We must struggle to understand, says the Rambam, the greatness and wisdom in the words of Chazal. Although we might not fully fathom the deeper meaning, we must appreciate that a parable or metaphor, something beyond the literal meaning, may be involved. As the Maharal writes (Be’er Hagolah Be’er Revi’i, page 51 in the standard edition), “The vast majority of the words of Chazal are meant in a metaphorical and allegorical way… Therefore, don’t be alarmed when you see words of Chazal which appear foolish and distant from wisdom. . . they are really hidden messages which are very profound and intelligent.”

As to our haftarah, Rashi seems to take the story literally, while Targum Yonasan takes it figuratively. Hashem was telling Hoshea to help Bnei Yisrael repent. The straying woman is a metaphor for Klal Yisrael and her children represented their multiplying sins.

The Ibn Ezra, Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (2:46), and the Radak understand the story figuratively as well. The Ibn Ezra even goes so far as to say, “Chas V’Shalom” that Hashem would tell Hoshea to literally marry a prostitute. The same sentiment is echoed by the Rambam: “Chalilah to say that Hashem would make his prophets be like fools and drunkards, telling them to do something so outlandish.” Abarbanel and the Malbim defend the literal understanding, explaining that at times extreme measures are needed to inspire Bnei Yisrael to repent and Hoshea’s taking of this wife is one such example. In fact, the midrash says that Hoshea was even more successful at helping Klal Yisrael do teshuvah than Yeshaya and Yirmiyah (Psikta D’Rav Kahane 44).

We need to understand what Hoshea meant that Hashem should exchange Klal Yisrael for another nation. Isn’t the Torah replete with promises that Hashem will never completely abandon us and that despite all the punishments and exiles He will eventually redeem us? Furthermore, why was Hoshea so willing to give up on us? Why does he seem to display such cruelty and nonchalance toward Klal Yisrael?

The midrash (Psikta D’Rav Kahane 44) explains that Hoshea was not being cruel and neither was Eliyahu HaNavi when he spoke harshly against Bnei Yisrael. They had both attempted to placate Hashem, but their entreaties were not accepted. The midrash seems to be saying that when Hoshea told Hashem to exchange them for another nation, what he was really saying was, “I have tried to defend Klal Yisrael but You have not accepted my words. I have nothing left to say; there are no more ways that I know with which to defend them. If You are not going to accept my prayers, You might as well exchange them for another nation.” Hashem then taught Hoshea that one can never give up on Klal Yisrael. Even if Hashem had not yet accepted Hoshea’s prayers, Hoshea had to continue trying to defend the nation until his last breath.

The Ben Yehoyada (Pesachim 87a) explains that Hoshea did not mean that Hashem should literally exchange Bnei Yisrael for another nation permanently but that He should exile them from Eretz Yisrael to another land. As Chazal say, those who live outside Eretz Yisrael are likened to people who have no G-d since their blessing and success do not come through a direct pipeline from Hashem, but rather through the blessings of Eretz Yisrael. Living in exile is tantamount to exchanging us for another nation.

Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Takanas Hashavin, pages 82a-b) writes that Hoshea’s intent was directed only at the sinners in Bnei Yisrael and Rav Tzadok says that this was actually fulfilled when most of the sinful Ten Tribes of Israel were completely lost to exile. When their men married non-Jewish women, their children became non-Jews and they were lost, “exchanged,” from being part of the Jewish nation, becoming part of non-Jewish nations.

After learning all of the above, the most vital lesson of our haftarah is that Hashem will never abandon us.

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