The Haftarah of Parashat Kedoshim is the final passage of Sefer Amos, who faced grave danger in the Northern Kingdom of Israel due to his prophecies of destruction as retribution for injustice (Amos 7:10-13). Unfazed, Amos persisted, preaching the word of God to those who brought him the word of the king. But despite his maltreatment, Amos maintained a deep commitment to the betterment of Bnei Yisrael; he pleaded on their behalf for the annulment of two separate Divine decrees of destruction, and God relented in both cases (Amos 1:6). In the final Perek of the Sefer, Amos is characteristic in his Nevu’ah: While God will punish the Kingdom of Israel with exile and suffering for its transgressions, namely the exploitation of the poor and idolatry, He will not annihilate His people, and once they are purified of sin, He will restore them to the Land of Israel and grant them prosperity.
But while Amos’s final prophecy is a fitting conclusion to the rest of the Sefer, the first line of the Haftarah is startling, if not shocking: “HaLo KiVnei Kushiyim Atem Li Bnei Yisrael,” “Are you not like the Children of the Ethiopians to me, O Children of Israel?” (Amos 9:7). Hashem, as reported by Amos, seems (Chas VeShalom) to be disregarding the special relationship between Him and Am Yisrael, as the “HaLo,” “Is it not,” construction, as used by the Nevi’im, is normally the rhetorical question-form of the statement “It is” (in our case, “You are like the Children of Ethiopia to Me.”). And yet, only seven Pesukim later, Hashem declares, “VeShavti Et Shevut Ami Yisrael,” “And I will return the captivity of my nation, Israel” (ibid. 9:14). How is one to reconcile the sentiment of the first Pasuk with that of the latter?
The Gemara (Mo’eid Katan 16b) provides a reading of the Pasuk which is almost diametrically opposed to our original interpretation. Just as Ethiopians in the ancient world were easily recognized due to their dark skin, so too Bnei Yisrael are easily recognized by their deeds. According to this reading of the Pasuk, Hashem is affirming the preciousness of Am Yisrael, whose actions (even in times of sin) are extraordinary in His eyes. Malbim (Amos 9:7) interprets the Pasuk in an identical fashion. In a similar vein, Yonatan Ben Uziel, the leading student of Hillel (Sukkah 28a) and author of the Aramaic Targum to Nevi’im, translates “Kushiyim,” “Ethiopians,” as “Rechimin,” “Beloved.”
The Metzudat David (ibid. s.v. HaLo KiVnei Kushiyim) interprets the word Kushiyim as a reference to servants, as many Ethiopians and other Africans were unfortunately enslaved throughout world history (including in this very country, until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment). The Pasuk thus reads, “Are you not my servants, O Children of Israel?”
Finally, Rashi (ibid. s.v. HaLo KiVnei Kushiyim) writes that the intent of the Pasuk is to provide a Kal VaChomer: If other nations are punished for their sins, then surely God must punish Bnei Yisrael for their iniquities. Accordingly, the Pasuk is an affirmation of the special relationship between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. This is borne out in Rashi’s interpretation of the continuation of the Pasuk (ibid. s.v. HaLo), which he takes to be God’s reminder to Bnei Yisrael that He saved other nations from distress, but only chose to give the Torah to one People.
All told, Chazal and the Rishonim present three renderings of the Pasuk: “Are you not special and unique to me, O Children of Israel?”, “Are you not servants to me, O Children of Israel?”, and “Are you not at least at the spiritual level of the children of the Ethiopians, O Children of Israel?”. Common to all of these interpretations is the paramount importance and continual binding nature of the covenant at Har Sinai, in which we bound ourselves to be God’s nation. May we fulfill this covenant to the fullest extent, and merit to experience the final Pasuk of Amos: “UNetatim Al Admatam VeLo Yinatshu Od Mei’Al Admatam Asher Natati Lahem Amar Hashem Elohecha,” “And I will plant them on their land, and they will never again be plucked from upon their land which I have given them, says Hashem, your God” (Amos 9:15).