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?1 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 themselves.

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.

Jacob the chosen

“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?!

The commentaries 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 right?

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.2

The above 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?

This verse 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 understood:

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.”

To elaborate:

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.3 Live up to it.4

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 you?”

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.5

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.6

This general principle is often quoted in halachic responsa when asked about using something of inferior quality for the performance of a mitzvah.