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November 21, 2010
Toldot Ashkenazim: Malachi 1:1-2:7

The book of Malachi is the last book in the last collections of prophetic books known as “The Twelve”. It can be dated to the second year of the rule of the Persian King Darius 1 (520 BCE.). To provide a context; The Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and this haftarah was written sixty years later. It was the time immediately after Ezra and Nehemiah. Those who lived during this period witnessed the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem which parenthetically remained standing for another 610 years until it was desecrated by the Romans. Malachi, the last of the prophets, lived immediately following the completion of the Temple's construction. His immediate predecessors Haggai anticipated the rebuilding of the Temple, Zechariah prophecied about its rebuilding and its sanctity and Malachi looked back on the rebuilding and focused his attention on the unspeakable ritual violations that were being performed by the priests and the laity.

The connection between the Torah and haftarah is a simple one. The Torah portion begins with the announcement that “this is the story of Isaac”, and immediately focuses on the prophecy heralding the birth of Jacob and Esau.

“Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

The haftarah is connected to the Torah reading as a result of a reference that “Esau is Jacob's brother; yet I have accepted Jacob and rejected Esau.”

The prophet and this morning's haftarah speaks to our ancestors living immediately following the temple's construction. It criticizes the priesthood's corruption and their ritual violations. Rather than inspire others through their exemplary behavior, they have subverted the rituals that should be providing inspiration and have become increasingly more distant from their people and what their function was supposed to have been.

It must have been so easy for those who were either in positions of religious or political authority to lose sight of the spirit in which they should be operating and to think that for some reason, by virtue of their roles, they were above rebuke. Malachi writes to challenge the priesthood of his time to change their ways and in doing so, he also challenges us.

The rabbis who selected this haftarah and connected it to the story of Isaac did so for a different reason. For them the Esau (who is also referred to as Edom), is not father of the Arab peoples. He is not the progenitor of the Palistinean people. He is Rome, the essence of evil, the destroyer of the Temple.

To place this in context following the time of Hadrian's edicts and the revolt at Bethar 132-135c.e. “the hand of Esau” was considered to be a reference in our literature to our ancestors who were slaughtered at during the rebellion at Bethar. The rabbis who survived the rebellion interpreted the oracle in Gen 25:23 that “two nations were in Rebecca's womb” to be an indication that one of them will be rejected. Our rabbis interpreted the hated one, the rejected one, to be Rome. “Edom (Rome) will be cursed and the covenant with Levi shall endure.” It provided our ancestors with hope that once again God would remember us and we would be reunited in our ancestral homeland.

What message does Malachi offer us? Not feeling like a conquered people I don't need to be comforted and reminded that my oppressors will be vanquished. On the other hand living in a time when priests and leaders are failing to set the standards that we expect, living in a time when our friends and acquaintance behave in a way that challenges basic values, might be time for us to consider the nature of the spirit that needs to be engaged when we perform ritual acts. After all ritual acts performed with the proper intent, proper spirit can provide meaning and sanctity in our lives.

This week's Haftarah commentary was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish" Jewish Lights Publishing

Translation of the Haftarah may be found here: http://www.jtsa.edu/PreBuilt/ParashahArchives/jpstext/Noah_haft.shtml

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