Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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.


  • 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! 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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Features Opinion Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Late Friday night, on November 13, I was headed for bed when an ominous news bulletin flashed across my computer screen – something about a shooting in Paris. It wasn’t long before the “small number” of shootings and casualties began to double and triple and quadruple. The locations of attacks seemed crazily disorganized, and the tweets and videos became more and more horrifying. It was a long night for many stunned observers. We tried to understand what was happening, and […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Theater BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    In an interview with the Israeli site nrg on Wednesday, Belgian-Jewish stage actress Noemi Schlosser recounted immigrating to Israel after her career in Europe was destroyed by BDS. Schlosser said she had enjoyed success in Belgium and international acclaim until she was targeted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for her pro-Israel stance during Operation Protective Edge — last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza. She described watching the theaters where she performed go from packed to nearly empty over a short period of […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →