Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

This week the Sefardim and Ashkenazim read overlapping haftarot in the book of Hoshea. These deal allegorically with the wickedness of the kings of Ephraim, the northern Kingdom of Israel. Today we best remember this political entity as the ten lost tribes of Israel. In those days they were just the Kingdom of Israel. They had prophets. But a generation or two after the events that inspired our haftara, the wicked King Achav tried hard to exterminate all the prophets and came very close to succeeding.

The kings of Israel trace their lineage back to Ephraim, the son of Yosef, who was born in this week’s parsha. For the past several weeks the Torah has spoken of pairs of brothers, a good one and a bad one. In later parshiot, we will meet Yosef’s sons, two good brothers. In this week’s haftara, we have the nation divided between two countries: the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. The navi Hoshea in our haftara focuses on the spiritual decadence of Ephraim. And yet, Ephraim is dear to Hashem and Hashem will redeem the lost tribes of the Kingdom of Israel before the rest of the world when the final redemption arrives. He brought us home from Egypt; He will bring us back from Assyria.

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But at the time Hoshea is speaking these words, Israel has not yet gone back into captivity. Hoshea already sees it on the horizon, but the people of his generation are still reveling in the establishment of their new state. Hoshea sees not only the end of the Northern Kingdom as it begins, but he anticipates the distant future when Hashem will return the exiled people – without their wicked leaders.

The Ashkenazi haftara begins and overlaps the Sefardi haftara as Yaakov flees to Aram, where he labors for a woman and also stands guard for a woman. This is the heart of the haftara, along with the verse which follows substituting the prophet for the woman, as Israel is redeemed and protected. Hashem loves His youngest son Ephraim, but Ephraim doesn’t love His Heavenly Father. The Ashkenazim conclude with the opening passages of the haftara for Shabbat Shuva. As a result, the Ashkenazi haftara emphasizes the need for Ephraim, and the people of Israel in exile to repent. But the Sefardim contextualize the story of Yaakov by bringing in more of the long, checkered history between Hashem and the nation of whom He is the true king.

Last week we discovered the notion that all of the prophets were taught by Moshe at Sinai. In this week’s haftara, Hashem recalls how He has sent one prophet after another, all for the purpose of bringing Israel back to Him and back to herself. Everything that has befallen Yaakov, Ephraim, the entire house of Israel – the long, checkered history – testifies to the hand of Hashem guiding and guarding His people. Just as Yaakov tended the sheep of Lavan, guiding and guarding them so he could win the hand of Rachel, so Hashem protects his offspring until the end of time.

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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He has written on Israeli art, music, and spirituality and is working to reawaken interest in medieval Jewish mysticism. He can be reached at avraham@thegeula.com.