Haftarah Parshat Tzav – Shabbat Hagadol (Malachi 3:4-24)
April 8, 2017 / 12 Nisan 5777
Human beings have a tendency to compartmentalize their behavior. Religious people are no exception. For the prophets, this was a serious problem. How could a people so dedicated to ritual service to God neglect or even oppose ethical behavior? How could they offer sacrifices with one hand and brush aside the unfortunate with the other? These paradoxes disturbed God and his messenger, Malachi, railed against them: “But first, I (God) will step forward to contend with you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.” (3:5)
This message takes on even greater intensity in this passage from the Talmud: “Rabbi Yohanan, when he came to the [following] verse, wept: ‘But first, I (God) will step forward to contend with you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.’ A slave whose Master brings him near to judge him, and hastens to testify against him, is there any remedy for him? Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said: Woe to us that Scripture weighs against us light like grave offences.” (Hagigah 5a)
Rabbi Yohanan, the central figure in Eretz Yisrael during the period of the Talmud, was brought to tears by the very idea that his people could bring God, in all of His glory, to lower Himself (as it were) to testify against their misdeeds. An earlier sage, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who the tradition sees as the one who rescued and restored Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem, cut to the crux of the issue. He paid close attention to the types of crimes grouped together in this verse. Malachi included in his indictment offences, like sorcery and adultery which according to the Torah, warranted the death penalty, together with the mistreatment of widows, orphans and strangers which while prohibited did not warrant punishment. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai concluded that lack of concern for social welfare should not be considered a minor offence to be disregarded as if it is not a significant religious concern.
This message should not be lost on us as we enter into Pesah, the Festival of Freedom, a holiday filled with its rituals which should help us define who we are as Jews and as people. While we celebrate, we should also remember that this legacy means nothing if it is not shared with the less fortunate.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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