November 29, 2003
The book of Malachi is stylistically different from all of the prophetic books which preceded it. Its societal critique is framed in the form of rhetorical monologues aimed first at the entire people and then, in the second part of the haftarah (chapter 2:1-7), at the people’s religious leadership – the cohanim (the priests). In this second prophecy, Malachi criticizes the disloyalty of the priests to their covenant with God. He invokes the consequences of their betrayal and then calls upon them to remember the high standards that were required by their position as the leaders of the people. This call is directed to the priests in the name of the progenitor of their tribe: “Know that I have sent this commandment unto you that My [God’s] covenant might be with Levi, said the Lord of Hosts. My covenant was with him, of life and death, I gave to him, and of fear, and he [Levi] feared Me [God], and was afraid of My name. The law of truth was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not in his lips. He walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.” (Malachi 2:4-6)
The simple meaning of this verse probably associates the covenant mentioned in this prophecy with the tribe of Levi who symbolically represent the priestly line. (see Deuteronomy 33:9) The identification of this passage with Levi, the founder of the tribe from which the priests are descendants seemed insufficient to some in the rabbinic tradition. They wanted to associate this prophecy with a specific individual. Consequently, these sages identified the “Levi” in this prophecy with one of the founders of the priestly line in order to serve as a paradigm of behavior for future generations of priests. This search led them to two figures: Aaron, the founder of the priestly line, and his grandson, Pinchas.
These associations should not be considered surprising since it is not uncommon for the sages of rabbinic times to assign identities to unspecified Biblical figures. The real question here is why associate this prophecy with either of these two figures? Rabbi David Kimchi, the 12th century Provencal scholar, asserts that this prophecy refers to Aaron, the leader of the tribe of Levi, because he had a special covenant with God. (see Exodus 4:14) Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel, the 14th century Spanish commentator and statesman, builds on this association and notes the lesson to be learned from this prophecy: “It would have been appropriate for the priests to learn from the relationship between God and the very first priest (Aaron), the holy one of God, whose covenant with God brought the reward of life and peace.” Aaron, according to Abrabanel, was a worthy paradigm for his fellow priests because “he feared God and avoided evil, taught the people the true Torah as it was received by Moses and brought peace between husbands and wives as well as others. He loved peace and pursued peace and brought all who met him closer to Torah.” (adapted translation)
Rashi associates this prophecy with Pinchas, who gained the priesthood through an act of zealotry. This act prompted God to promise him a covenant of peace and long life.(see Numbers 25:13) The promise of long life led some sages to associate Pinchas with the famous prophet Elijah who lived much later. (The rabbis sometimes associate one Biblical character with another and telescope the timespan which separated them.) This association further emphasized the image of Pinchas as a guardian of the people.
Each of these associations provided the sages with an opportunity to give future generations with a paradigm of leadership which they felt worthy of emulation – Aaron, the teacher and peacemaker and Pinchas, the guardian of Israel.
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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