Streams of Righteousness - A River Crossings Reflection (Amos 5)

Spring Creek, Collier Park, Oregon 



18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19     as if someone fled from a lion,
    and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
    and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
    and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
                                                Amos5:18-24 NRSV

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                As my River Crossings journey (sabbatical) nears its end, I continue to discover texts and readings that are suggestive of what it means to walk in the presence of God. I have reproduced a section of Amos 5, the final verse of which has been often quoted regarding the importance of justice.
 
                This passage opens with a word about the Day of the Lord. It’s a word of warning—be careful about what you wish for! The day of the Lord is not light but darkness. In other words, it is a day of judgment. Amos speaks to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century in the days before the Assyrian invasion destroyed that nation. While there are words here suggesting destruction, there is also a word here about repentance. It speaks of what God is expecting of the people. Not sacrifices, but justice and repentance. These are framed in terms of water.  Justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an unfailing stream.

                I was drawn to this text as I was reading Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s A Year with theSages: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion, (Jewish Publication Society, 2019). In his reflections on Leviticus 1-5, he speaks of the sacrifices and their ending with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. He notes in his commentary that in Israel’s understanding of the sacrifices, these were not for God but for the people: “Sacrifices allowed them to feel close to the Divinity, to offer thanksgiving, and/or to assuage feelings of guilt and attain forgiveness.” [Hammer, A Year with the Sages, p. 124]. He goes on to say that according to the prophets, sacrifices did not please God if they weren’t accompanied by observing Judaism’s ethical teachings. This is where Amos 5 comes into play. The issue isn’t whether or not there should be sacrifices, but their larger context of being attentive to God’s concern for justice and righteousness. This vision was picked up by the Sages at the time of and after the destruction of the Temple. For instance, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who helped organize the community at Yavneh after the destruction of Jerusalem, suggested that charitable acts were an appropriate replacement for the Temple sacrifices.

                In the concluding paragraph of his reflection on the text and on the word of the Sages, Rabbi Hammer writes that it is unimaginable that Jews will return to the sacrificial system (even though some groups agitate for it). He writes: “Indeed, Judaism has always taught that God did not need sacrifices. Maimonides saw them as a concession to human feelings, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said that acts of loving-kindness were an adequate substitute, and the prophets viewed them as less important than the pursuit of justice.” Then he concludes by saying: “Perhaps, then, we can appreciate the vital role sacrifices played in Judaism two thousand years ago without desiring to see them return.” [Hammer, AYear with the Sages, p. 128].

                Ritual has its place, perhaps even sacrifices, but ultimately justice and righteousness are like unfailing streams. Thus, we hear our calling, which is rooted in the ancient sacred texts. “But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream” [Amos 5:24, Tanakh] 

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