April 12, 2003
This week’s special haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol opens with the following statement: “Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant to the Lord as in the days of old and as in ancient years” (Malachi 3:4). This verse is meant to represent a sign of God’s reconciliation with the Jewish people. Malachi signals with these words the end of a process in which God will first morally and spiritually purify his people and after having restored them to a state of righteousness will accept their sacrificial offerings.
In the following midrash, this verse serves a different purpose: “Rabbi Berechiah and Rabbi Hanan in the name of Rabbi Azariah from the village of Hatiah told a parable: This can be compared to a king who had two cooks. The first cook made a meal and the king ate it and it pleased him. The second cook made a meal which the king ate and it also pleased him. Nobody knew which meal pleased the king more. But the next day when the king asked the second cook to prepare him a meal, everyone knew that the king preferred the second cook. So, too, Noah made a sacrifice before God and it pleased Him… Israel made a sacrifice before God and it pleased Him… No one knew which sacrifice God preferred more until God commanded Moses to make offerings before Him. Now we know that the offerings of Israel are more pleasing to God, as it is written: ‘The offerings of Judah are pleasing to God…’ (Ibid.) [The midrash continues to interpret the end the verse] ‘as in days of old’ – as in the days of Moses. ‘As in ancient years’ – as in the days of Solomon.” (adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 7:4)
This midrash emphasizes, with pride, the Jewish people’s religious primacy. It asserts, using the verse from our haftarah, that God has chosen our sacrifices over those of the other nations. This message, which is not an unusual claim for any religious community, is substantially different from the meaning of the verse in its original context. This is not uncommon in the nature of midrash, which often knowingly reinterprets verses from the Tanach. The midrash does, however, temper its message of Jewish religious primacy when it suggests which offerings God chooses. God will only willingly accept offerings like those in the “days of Moses and Solomon”. What is intimated by these words?
The midrash recounts idealized times when God would not have refused the people of Israel’s offerings. We look to the past with the expectation that things were better and more perfect. We then project this perfection onto our ideal for ourselves and our future. In a sense, this midrash returns somewhat to the original intent of the verse – when will God give our offerings primacy? Only when we recapture our service to God as we imagine it was in ideal times like those of Moses and Solomon.