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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Parashat Toldot - the Haftara

Parashat Toldot – the Haftara
Malachi 1:1 – 2:7
Reading date: 29th November 2008 – 2nd Kislev 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text

“Give honor to My name.
If you do not listen,
if you do not take it to heart,
says the God of heaven's hosts,
I will send a curse upon you,
and turn your blessings to curses.
In fact, I have [already] turned them into curses,
because you do not take it to heart”.
Malachi 2:2

“We should be careful that our actions 'say' what we mean”.

In this week's Haftara, YHVH reminds the Israelites that though Jacob and Esau are brothers, YHVH only loves Jacob. The prophet therefore criticizes the Israelites for their lackluster performance of the Temple sacrificial service. In the Torah portion, the relationship of children to their father is emphasized. The Haftara asks, why do the Israelites not honor YHVH like a parent? In Genesis, hands (disguised by animal skins) offer the father a prepared meal; the prophet says that YHVH will not accept an offering "from your hands." The Hebrew words for spurn (bozei, vayivzeh both from the Hebrew root: b.z.h.) are used to describe how the Israelites spurn YHVH through improper sacrifices (Malachi 1:6,7) just like Esau spurned his birthright (Gen. 25:34). YHVH wants the service of the heart.

Malachi, which simply means 'My messenger,' is more of a title, than an actual personal name. The anonymous individual we call Malachi was the last of the prophets, and lived in the middle of the 5th century B.C.E. before the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. (Some sources in fact identify him as Ezra.) At that time, Judea was still a province of Persia. While it seems that he lived at a time when the Temple had been rebuilt (515 B.C.E.) religious performance was perfunctory. Malachi calls for a religious revival.

Isaac and Rebecca have twins: Jacob and Esau. Esau and Jacob are the opposite of identical twins. In the ancient world, twins were often depicted as the two complementary halves of a complete personality. This is what we find here: Esau is the active, physical individual, a hunter who loves the outdoors. Jacob, on the other hand is portrayed as a gentle, cerebral soul who stays inside. Both however, are to become the father of a people. Esau was born covered with red hair, (‘adom’ in Hebrew means red; hair is ‘se'ir’). Esau is therefore linked through this wordplay to the two names of the land of Edom, or Seir and is considered to be the father of the Edomites (Gen. 36:1). Like the name Israel, Edom can refer to the individual (Esau) or the people (the Edomites) or the land. The land of Edom, in what is now present day Jordan often appears red (think of the red rock of Petra). The sibling rivalry in the Genesis narrative foreshadows the enmity between the Edomites and the Israelites. The Edomites were displaced by the Nabateans, and in rabbinic times, the term 'Edom' came to represent Rome, and then later Christianity. Jacob and Esau become therefore, the archetypes for the Jew and non-Jew respectively.

The prophet begins his address by reminding Israel of YHVH's preferred relationship to Jacob over Esau, but then berates the Israelites for their cavalier attitude to YHVH's service. He warns them that the blessings YHVH has promised could in fact become curses. Blessings and curses are a theme which appears in the Torah portion since Jacob initially fears that in trying to steal his brother's blessing, he will be cursed instead. And Isaac's blessing to Jacob echoes the blessing that YHVH previously gave to Abraham, that "Cursed by they who curse you, Blessed they who bless you" (Gen. 27:29). YHVH's very blessings, and the special relationship with YHVH enjoyed by the Israelites, are at risk.

The prophets often admonish the Israelites for offering sacrifices while engaging in corrupt behavior. In future columns we will see that YHVH instead delights in kindness, justice and righteousness; YHVH does not even want sacrifices (Jeremiah 7:22-3). But here, we have a slightly different message. In our passage the prophet is not complaining of social injustice or the Israelites' moral failings. He is not even making the [legitimate] point that ritual observance also requires ‘kavannah’, proper intent. All that is for another time. Instead, the point being stressed here is that ritual acts, if they are to be done, need to be performed properly.
The Israelites 'lame' offerings YHVH will not accept, but surprisingly, incense and pure sacrifices offered to YHVH's name "from the setting of the sun to its setting among the nations" are acceptable. Abravanel comments: “You should have learnt from the ways of the nations. Though they have not been vouchsafed the light of the Torah... they magnify and exalt YHVH and perform the most pure sacrifice that they themselves are capable of doing according to their lights”.

This message is all the more exceptional because the Haftara begins by proclaiming that YHVH hates Esau. Yet, sincere religious devotion, (even pagan, it seems) is more acceptable to YHVH than improperly performing the rituals. When it comes to YHVH's blessings, we want the genuine article, not a cheap substitute, yet the Israelites are satisfied with offering blemished and unfit animals. The prophet's complaint is that the Israelites are taking YHVH's beneficence and special relationship for granted.

This is one of the challenges of Torah. To follow Torah is skill-based, and ritual observance often requires a minimum of technical expertise. We all know of individuals performing ritual in a sloppy manner: putting up a mezuzah incorrectly, (or even without the parchment!). They may have sincere intent. But just like the Israelites sent a clear message that they didn't really take their relationship with YHVH seriously in the way they performed the Temple rituals, we communicate how we feel about our faith by the effort and care we put into our actions.
When Jacob resorts to the subterfuge of disguising himself with animal skins, Isaac says: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau" (Gen. 27:22). One interpretation of this verse is that it refers to hypocrites who say one thing with their mouths but do something else with their hands. Torah has always stressed action over belief: deed, not creed. We have to 'walk our talk.' Since actions speak louder than words, we should be careful that our actions 'say' what we mean.

Shabbat Shalom

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