The book of Malachi gives us a unique glimpse into the time
when he delivered his prophecies. As the last of the biblical prophets, Malachi
is there as the Second Temple is being built and the handful of Jews return to
their land. Although they had taken a leading role in this historic time, the
spiritual level that these Jews were at was rather low.
As we read in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah at length, the
Jewish men thought much more of the non-Jewish women than of their Jewish
wives. After all, why be married to a Jewish woman, on whose face can be seen
all the difficulties of exile, when you can marry a good-looking local girl and
become part of society?
The newly arrived immigrants were also so bent on material prosperity in their
new surroundings that expenses for their Jewish duties were seen as burdensome.
We read here that the sacrifices offered in the Temple were taken from the
poorest of the crops and animals. The people also had a general disrespect,
even contempt, for the Temple service.
It is here that Malachi admonishes them to wake up to their
real selves. He begins with describing the unconditional love that exists
between G‑d and His people. This had been demonstrated with the Jewish return
to their homeland, something that no other exiled nation had been able to do.
Where is the reciprocation? the prophet demands. So insensitive had they grown
that they did not even think there was anything wrong with their attitude. The
service in the Temple was to be the source of blessing for the people in the
land, and ridiculing it would in turn become a source of shame and contempt for
The final words of the haftarah
are directed to the kohanim. G‑d had
made a covenant with the priests because of their commitment and righteous
ways. The kohanim were expected to
continue in the way of their ancestors, teach the people, and live lives that
would serve as role models for the rest of the nation.
“I loved you,” said the L‑rd; and
you said, “How have You loved us?” “Was not Esau a brother to Jacob?” says the
L‑rd, “yet I loved Jacob… and I hated Esau.”
This opening statement of Malachi
makes the connection of the haftarah
to the portion of Toldot, namely the story of Jacob and Esau. And what a
perplexing statement it is… Could there really have been an equal choice
between the wicked Esau and the righteous Jacob? Preoccupying all the
commentaries to our Parshah is the great question of how Isaac could have
possibly favored Esau over Jacob. Many different explanations are offered. But
that this was actually a dilemma for G‑d as well?!
understand the verse in the following way:
In response to
G‑d stating that He loved them, the Jewish people pressed to know specifics:
“How have you loved us?” The people were still unsure as to what might
constitute this love. Was it only because G‑d loved their forefathers that He
loved them? Or did G‑d have a unique relationship with them in their own
To this G‑d
responded: “Was not Esau a brother to Jacob?” If His love for the Jew would be
merely because of his ancestry, then Esau too came from the same illustrious
lineage—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca. The fact that G‑d loved Jacob and
hated Esau was evidence that this was about a direct relationship with the
Jewish people themselves, without consideration of their ancestry.
understanding, however, still does not settle the question: what about the actions of these two brothers? If Jacob
was the righteous one, then how could there have been a choice to possibly
choose Esau? As for the descendants of the two—would it not depend on their own
actions whether they would earn or forfeit G‑d’s love for them?
introduces us to one of the the great facts of Judaism: G‑d’s choice of the
Jewish people. When we talk of G‑d choosing something, two things must be
1. The item of
choice does not have any sway over this decision. G‑d is truly infinite, and
the finite is totally inconsequential to Him.
2. “Choosing,” in
this context, means that an essential bond is forged with that which is chosen.
We call this “love.”
When we choose
things, we have always have a cause: something in the chosen person or object
that sways us to choose it. This may be conscious or subconscious, but there is
always an explanation as to why we make our choices. As for G‑d, though,
nothing has any sway over Him. When G‑d extends Himself in a certain way to
something, the only case for it is Himself, not the recipient.
Now, when we say
that nothing has any sway over G‑d’s choice, this also includes the actions of
the chosen being. This is not to say that actions do not mean anything to Him;
they do. But this does not have any bearing on G‑d’s “choosing” something and creating
an eternal bond with it. These are two separate things.
G‑d wants good
deeds being performed and does not want evil deeds perpetrated. So He will not
tie Himself to the righteous regardless
of their actions; on the contrary, His closeness with them depends on their actions.
However, in many
places, such as here, the Torah tells us that G‑d chose to have an inseparable
bond with the Jewish people that is independent of their actions. In this
context, “Esau is a brother to Jacob.” Binding Himself to a specific people
regardless of who they are and what they do is something that both defies and
goes beyond any explanation.
The prophet is
conveying this fact to the Jewish people: G‑d loves you. He could have loved
anyone, but He chose you. Live up to it.
Don’t be cheap!
In his rebuke to
the people, Malachi chides them for fulfilling their duties to G‑d in a cheap
and begrudging way: “When you offer a blind [animal] for a sacrifice, is there
nothing wrong? And when you offer a lame or a sick one, is there nothing wrong?
Were you to offer it to your governor, would he accept you or would he favor
Toeing the line
of the prophet, a number of halachic dicta were put into place for precisely
this purpose: upholding of the quality
of the performance of mitzvot. A number of these standards applied in Temple
times, but some are also in place today, such as these:
1. One is not allowed to make kiddush
on wine that has a bad smell.
2. If a rodent fell into oil, even though there is more than sixty times
the volume of the rodent in the oil (thus not rendering it non-kosher), it is
nevertheless still forbidden to use this oil for a mitzvah, like Shabbat or
Chanukah lights, or illuminating a synagogue.
principle is often quoted in halachic responsa when asked about using something
of inferior quality for the performance of a mitzvah.