The Message and the Challenge – Rabbi Jonathan Bailey
In the Haftarah for this week’s parsha, the message of God is delivered through the navi, Melakhi. Similar to many of the beginnings of the books of the Latter Prophets, it is a heavy message of rebuke, chastising the people for bringing sacrifices that are old, stolen, blemished, etc. Here are some powerful excerpts from this chastisement (which of course sound much better in the Hebrew- so look them up!):
“A son honors his father, a slave his master; and if I’m the Father, where’s my honor? If I’m the Master, where’s the fear?”
“You think if you bring a blind [animal] to the altar it’s not wrong!”
“Cursed is the one who has a healthy animal in his flock and brings a decrepit one to the altar!”
Okay, so, whether you picked up on it or not, God’s pretty angry. But why? Is murder not worse?? Theft? Adultery? Why does He have Melakhi focus so heavily on this specific iniquitous behavior? So people bring a couple of less-than-perfect animals, are they to be so berated – at least they are coming to the Temple instead of practicing idolatry at home!
The key to understanding God’s wrath, I believe, is found at thebeginning of the section.
“I have loved you, says God, and you said ‘for what did you love us?’ [and God answers] isn’t Esav the brother of Yaakov [Bnei Yisrael] and I love Yaakov… and hate Esav.”
It sounds from these verses that God says the love He has for His children is almost expected, or innate, ‘obviously’ unquestioned. In essence, God is saying, ‘you ask why I love you? Doesn’t it just make sense that I do? It’s natural that I would love Bnei Yisrael over the other nations of the world – aren’t they My beloved Yaakov vs. Esav [them] My hated?’ But then, of course, God continues and begins His harsh criticism as seen above… so, does He love us or not? The mixed signals are difficult to read.
The second mishnah in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot says: Upon three things the world is founded: on Torah, on service and on the bestowal of kindness. As opposed to the last mishnah of that chapter which enumerates upon what the world is ‘sustained’ (‘קיים’), this one gives the list of what it ‘stands’ upon (‘עומד’); and like a school or foundation that is founded upon, ‘stands on’ or for particular philosophies or mission statement, here too, the world is founded upon, stands for, these three things.
As presented (emphasized separation by the repeated word ‘on’ for each of the three ‘pillars’), the list tells us to treat each one of them separately, as three distinct facets to the world’s foundational principles, yet still remain as one combined unit (‘stands upon three things’)– distinct but dependent.
Torah: the philosophies and beliefs, morals and ethics that God has described as critical and fundamental within that work that drive the consciousness of the actions. Service: our required, active performance of mitzvot. Bestowal of kindness: the implementation of positive activity within a societal structure (you can only bestow kindness if you have another to bestow it upon).
The number three, of course, is very significant; three points prove an equation of a line on a graph, three events establish a chazakah, and three legs are the minimum number of legs to hold something up (tripod). So, although understood separately, these three are also to be understood as the combined basis to the world, where one’s absence would cause the world to ‘topple’. So, with all these definitions in mind, how are we to understand this mishnah’s overall message?
To just believe in what’s right without applying and expressing this faith through an outward behavior truly undermines a genuine acceptance and understanding of that belief (‘if you really believe, why don’t you live by it?’); similarly, if you behave ‘perfectly’ but do not believe, then the actions are empty, driven by something other than the true motivation, therein undermining the significance of those actions. And, even if you have the correct faith and you express it properly through perfected behavior, it still matters little if you do not implement it in society, nationally; bestowing of kindness not only requires this social interaction but forces one to contribute of himself, share that which he is through a completely selfless capacity, to become part of a greater whole because he gives of himself towards its continued existence. And this is integral because while God couched the language of most of the mitzvot in the singular, these actions – when understood and performed properly – are to be used to perfect that individual onlywith the ultimate goal of playing his necessary role in the establishment of a perfected nation – so when someone only practices for and stays within himself, no matter how total and complete his worship may be, he has missed the true goal.
And what is this true national goal? We are to inspire the nations of the world; allow them to truly appreciate the presence, authority and Rightness of God in their own existence; to truly believe in the Oneness of God and to righteously follow all that He demands of them. And we, as the Chosen People, were given that difficult responsibility; we were given the Torah and all of its mitzvot to ‘train’ us, as it were, to be the informed ‘teachers’ we need to be to accomplish our goal. ‘Chosen’ does not mean better but rather a classification of role: a teacher isn’t better than a student but rather is given the unique responsibility to educate the pupil and therefore is chosen to receive more information, in addition to having greater demands imposed upon him, in order to achieve that required goal.
Herein lies the Haftarah’s message for us. It’s not enough to be theChosen people, the ‘naturally obvious’ loved ones; we have to act like it. God specifically introduces this chastisement with the description from where the love for His people comes – because we are Yaakov and not Esav – that’s who we are and therefore that’s from where our responsibility stems; nonetheless, He then still continues with the bitter rebuke. In other words, it’s not about merely being special, holding a unique or honored title (being Bnei Yisrael- His chosen people), it’s rather more importantly about who we are and what we do with such a singular role. For even if ‘the voice is the voice of Yaakov,’ if we still have the ‘hands of Esav,’ (a wonderful thematic connection to the parsha) then we are no better off, no more deserving of God’s attention, than anyone else. If we aren’t exemplary examples of God’s servants, reflecting a holiness and Godliness in our behavior, then the title is useless; to be called a teacher when one never teaches a student is the very hypocrisy God is highlighting.
And the clincher to this entire idea is that the specific people God’s addressing in this criticism are the kohanim! The paradigmatic example of a chosen people (and the teachers throughout history), made special only due to God’s deciding one branch of Levi’s descendants will be made special over another, and these are the people who allow inferior sacrifices to be brought on His altar! ‘What is the use,’ God is in essence saying, ‘of holding a Divinely favored position when a lack of concern and attention undermines it so dramatically? Your privileged position means nothing if you don’t use it properly!’ The message is clear, and our challenge is thus presented.