Haftarah Parshat Tzav – Shabbat Hagadol (Malachi 3:4-24)
March 28, 2015 / 8 Nisan 5775
The Prophet Elijah looms large in the Jewish tradition. In the book of Kings he is a prophet and miracle worker, who at the end of his life, ascended to heaven in a chariot. He appears time and again in the tradition in all sorts of roles, sometimes in his role as harbinger of the Messiah, sometimes as the zealous advocate for brit milah (circumcision), while elsewhere he is the tradition’s great master of reconciliation.
Ezekiel’s zeal for God’s honor is well known from the stories in the book of Kings. He is famous for the following retort in a conversation with God: “I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant (brit), torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword.” (1 Kings 19:10) In the rabbinic tradition the mention of “brit” in this verse was understood to be a plaint by Elijah against Israel’s lack of observance of circumcision. This led to the association of Elijah with a verse from Malachi which immediately precedes this week’s special haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol: “As for the angel of the covenant that you desire, he is already coming.” (Malachi 3:1) This verse was also understood with regard to brit milah. Together these verses inspired the following midrash:
And Elijah got up and fled from the land of Israel and took refuge, as it said: And he got up, ate and drank.’ (1 Kings 19:8) And the Holy One Blessed be He revealed Himself to him and said: ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’ (Ibid. 9) And Elijah responded: ‘I am moved by zeal for the Lord.’ (Ibid. 10) God replied: ‘You are always zealous. You were jealous at Shittim over sexual impropriety.’ [See Numbers 25:11. The midrash identifies Elijah with Pinhas.] And now, you are jealous again? By your life, Israel will not perform a single brit milah that you will not see with your own eyes! From this we learn that the Sages decreed that a seat of honor be set aside for the Angel of the covenant [who is identified with Elijah], as it is written: ‘As for the angel of the covenant that you desire, he is already coming.’ And so the God of Israel will hasten to bring in our lifetime the Messiah to bring us comfort, and renew our hearts, as it says: “And he shall return the hearts of the parents to their children.” (Malachi 3:24) (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 29 end)
God teaches an “overly zealous” Elijah to trust in the loyalty of his people to the covenant. A loving Elijah will be better equipped to God’s ultimate mission – to redeem the hearts of God’s people and to mend the fray edges which have the potential to tear the tradition apart.
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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