On Relationships: W.H. Auden vs. Amos the Prophet

November 8, 2012 3:13 pm 2 comments

The Prophet Amos.

We will buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. (Amos 8:6)

W.H. Auden once wrote, “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.” I find this hard to accept. I really hope our poet had good friends. Not everyone in the world is out to exploit others. The Bible understood that some people were naturally susceptible to exploitation and warned us lest we begin to think too much like Auden and not enough like Amos.

Our verse above is often twinned with another from Amos: “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6) One contemporary Israeli commentary observes that this is the price of injustice. Those in positions of power and authority will have become so corrupt and extortionist that in order to live under their leadership, the poor will sell themselves for basic necessities.

Another interpreter believes that shoes are an inexpensive, insignificant item and that the choice of this metaphor illustrates the depth of a corrupt society. Another posits the exact opposite. Most of the poor go barefoot because shoes are expensive; corrupt leaders will sell out the poor to keep themselves in shoes. Yet other commentaries understand this verse more literally. Shoes were often used in business or other deals as a sign of transaction—this is true in the rejection of Levirate marriage as described in the book of Ruth. Rashi sees shoes as representative of land purchase, perhaps because land was often measured by footfalls.

Rashi translates this term not as shoe but as a reference to a “locked door” since the two words have a common Hebrew root. The rich would buy up land from the poor, locking away real estate for themselves and taking away the little security that a needy person might have.

There is a very old midrash on this expression that states that when his brothers sold Joseph, they used the money to purchase shoes for themselves. In essence, they were benefitting personally from the sale of another human being. While this purchase never makes an actual appearance in the Bible, Genesis does tell us that after Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit, they sat down to eat lunch. This small detail tells us everything we need to know about their callousness at that moment. Subsequently, the expression “to sell someone for a pair of shoes” is used to capture particularly harsh and cutting behavior that lacks compassion and humanity.

There is a Hasidic story that I have always loved and think of sometimes in the face of rejection. A young yeshiva student who was dirt poor went door-to-door in his village to ask for a few dollars to buy himself a pair of shoes. The young man was considered a prodigy but still his feet were bare. He approached the door of the village’s most wealthy family only to have the door slammed in his face. He was utterly humiliated. Years passed and the young scholar achieved great fame and was scheduled to speak in the village of his old yeshiva. The wealthy man who ignored his plea years earlier approached him and offered to cover the cost of publishing the scholar’s first book. In earnest, the prodigy looked him straight in the eye and rejected his offer with these words: “No thank you. But there was a time when you could have had me for a pair of shoes…”

Amos understood that compassion must be a greater driver in creating a just society than self-interest. The fact that you can buy someone for a pair of shoes does not mean that you should. Those who have that kind of power over others—be it financial or emotional—must temper it with grace. Kindness is the measure of a good society.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.


2 Comments

  • Thank you for this great article. I agree with you that not every one wants to exploit others. But W. H. Auden wasn’t wrong. Apart from that he was a fantastic poet. Last week a swapped a book (A City Without Walls And Other Poems) of him on barterquest.com! Amazing book and I exchange it for my service as a web designer! Great deal.

  • Irena Davidi Gibson

    Dr. Brown, I quite accidentally came across this website with your article on it. Amazingly, it is my son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah portion for December 8th, 2012. I just read your article out loud to him and our son and daughter who have already been bar mitzvah’d. Thank you for writing this.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Music Personalities Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    JNS.org – “He was part hippie, part yippie, part beatnik, and part New Age,” wrote Elli Wohlgelernter in a Jerusalem Post eulogy in 1994, following the Oct. 20 passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Twenty years later, more robust accounts of Carlebach’s life have come to the surface. Earlier this year, Natan Ophir published the book Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission & Legacy. This past summer, Rabbi Shlomo Katz’s The Soul of Jerusalem hit the shelves. But even the authors will admit [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    As Hamas loses its grip on power in the Gaza Strip as a result of war, poverty and disillusionment, the Islamist terrorist group has developed an ingenious way to raise the moral of the 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs it was elected to serve. While currently focused on delivering a rocket into every Israeli home, Hamas has not left its own people behind. To gently wipe away the tears of children strategically placed inside kindergartens as human shields, the Hamas Interior Ministry has [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    In a strong statement that challenges the historic divide between Christianity and Judaism, Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” But if you look at Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus, you will not find any evidence of a Jew inside the Christianized Jesus — even though the Gospels in the New Testament tell us that Jesus was Jewish to the core. Getting that point across to the public is a daunting task, as I learned in interviews I [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Recycling His Roots

    Recycling His Roots

    JNS.org – Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world. After beginning in the kitchen, Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist plays on with pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles buckets, and other recycled-object [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    JNS.org – Sara Davidson’s The December Project is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives? Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish History Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

    Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

    It’s hard to make a new contribution to the field of Holocaust studies,  but German historian Götz Aly accomplishes just that in Why the Germans, Why the Jews? His premise is that the origins of the Holocaust were rooted in the specific anti-Semitism found in Germany in the decades and centuries before World War II. Aly (who is not Jewish) seeks to prove his theory by studying only pre-Holocaust history, and tracing how the German people’s envy and hatred of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Looking at Anti-Israel Celebrities and Their Brands

    Looking at Anti-Israel Celebrities and Their Brands

    JNS.org – During the current conflict in Gaza a number of celebrities have voiced their opinions in support of either the Israeli or Palestinian positions. But others—be it during Operation Protective Edge or at other times—have gone further than simply supporting the Palestinians by actively supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, making false accusations about the Jewish state, ignoring Israel’s position on the conflict, or justifying the actions of the terrorist group Hamas. Many of these [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Israeli UFC Fighter Returns to Jewish State to Rejoin IDF

    Israeli UFC Fighter Returns to Jewish State to Rejoin IDF

    JNS.org – Days after winning his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight bout against Steven Siler on July 26, Israeli-born mixed martial arts competitor Noad Lahat boarded a plane for his native country, choosing to temporarily exit UFC’s octagonal cage to rejoin the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a paratrooper for its operation against Hamas in Gaza. Except he didn’t actually consider it a choice. “When [our] home is in danger, there is no other way for us [but to serve [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.