November 25, 2006
The book of Malachi has a unique style among Biblical books. Its thoughts are shaped in the form of small rhetorical dialectic arguments. In one of these arguments, the prophet chastises the people of Israel for its disloyalty to God, chiding them with a comparison to their neighbors: \”For from where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name, for My name is honored among the nations – said the Lord of Hosts. But you profane it when you say, \’The table of the Lord is defiled and the meat, the food, can be treated with scorn…\” (Malachi 1:11-12)
Rashi records an opinion that \”there were sages who held that this verse meant that even though the nations of the world worshipped other gods, still they recognized that God is God over all of the other gods, willingly making offerings in His name.\” Malachi intended to force the people of Israel to recognize the bitter irony that sometimes the nations of the world have something to teach the people of Israel about religious behavior especially when the nations treat the religion of Israel with honor while Jews sometimes treat God and their own religious tradition with contempt.
This recognition prompted the following 7th century midrash to ask why God continues His special relationship with the people of Israel: Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Israel: \”Not because you are a larger people than other peoples, and not because you do more mitzvoth (here: good deeds) than other people, for [there are times when] they glorify My name more than you, as it says: \’For from where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations… But you profane it when you say, The table of the Lord is defiled.\’ (1:11-12) Furthermore, you are the smallest (hame\’at) of nations. Still, \’the Lord favored you\’ (Deut. 7:8) [What explains this anomaly?] I [God] love you because you [the people of Israel] belittle (hemeat) yourselves in My presence. This is why I love you, as it says: \’I have shown you love, said the Lord. (Malachi 1:2) (Tanhuma Buber ed. Ekev 4)
According to this midrash, Israel possesses the special ability to be self-critical before God. This midrash asserts that Jews are no better than the other nations of the world. Sometimes, the nations will even outdo us in their religious commitments to God. What distinguishes us is our ability to \”belittle\” ourselves, recognize mistakes and hopefully correct them. This is the message of the prophets to their people. Without this ability a nation and people will remain static, mired in whatever wrongs they might accumulate, never able to renew their relationships with God. The ability to humble oneself and recognize ones relationship with God and to fix that which is broken is why God loves the Jewish people. This ability is a gift we must share with the world.
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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