Haftarah Parshat Toldot (Malachi 1:1-2:7)
December 3, 2016 / 3 Kislev 5777
A major theme of Malachi’s prophecies is God’s dissatisfaction with Israel’s religious loyalty. God is distraught that His people dishonor Him and that their worship of Him is both insincere and, at times, fraudulent. He compares the people’s disloyalty unfavorably with that of the nations of the world: “From where the sun rises to where the sun sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblations are offered to My name; for My name is honored by the nations, said the Lord of Hosts.” (1:11)
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain) explains the significance of this prophecy this way: “A wise rabbi explained to me the true interpretation of this verse: ‘The prophet [in this verse comes] to reprove [the people] over the insulting and loathing way that they profane God’s name.
What, however, was Malachi’s intent? Did he really mean that all of the nations of the world recognized God or was he speaking hyperbolically in order to make an impression on his audience? This question became the source of a debate in the Talmud: “Rav Abba ben Rav Isaac said in the name of Rav Hisda; others say, Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: ‘From Tyre to Carthage, the nations know Israel and their Father who is in heaven; but from Tyre westwards and from Carthage eastward, the nations know neither Israel nor their Father who is in heaven. Rav Shimi bar Hiyya raised the following objection against Rav: Is it not written: ‘For from where the sun rises unto where it sets, My name is honored among the nations; and in everywhere incense and pure offerings are offered to My name?” He replied: You, Shimi! They call Him the God of gods, [namely, they recognize God even though they continue to worship their own deities].” (Menachot 110a)
Without going into the geography mentioned in this little dialogue, the sense of Rav’s statement seems to be that God is not acknowledged everywhere. Rav’s grandson, Rav Shimi, challenged his grandfather using the verse from our haftarah which seemingly indicates that God is recognized everywhere. Rav responds by asserting that God is recognized as a sort of “Uber-deity”, meaning that He existed along with other deities. What exactly is meant by this? In the Middle Ages, this meant that God was the one who was the cause behind creation (an Aristotelian idea) but that He remained aloof from the events of the world. Consequently, the other nations worshiped other gods as well. (See Rabbi David Kimche and Drashot Haran 9, Feldman ed., p. 156)
For us, this debate poses a unique challenge. Jews must muster the faith, loyalty, integrity and strength of identity to see Malachi’s challenge as an impassioned plea to represent God’s message in the world. It is difficult for a minority people to hold true to their identity in the face of the powerful majority forces to conform, but if the message carried by one’s core identity is significant then we must shore up who we are and share it with others to make Rav Shimi’s message a reality.