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Toldot 5773

Haftarah Parshat Toldot
(Malachi 1:1-2:7)
November 17, 2012
3 Kislev 5773

The book of Malachi is the last of the prophetic books of the Tanach. Its opening is different from that of the other prophets – “Masa – A pronouncement (literally: The burden): The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi”. Rashi, representing the traditional outlook learns from the words “d’var HaShem – the word of God” that this prophecy was passed to Malachi long before it was delivered.

The origins of this idea are found in a provocative midrash which Rashi quotes only in part: “R. Isaac said: That which the prophets will in the future prophecy in each generation was received from Mount Sinai; for Moses said to them, to Israel: ‘But both with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and with him that is not here with us this day.’ (Deut. 29:14) It does not say ‘that is not here standing with us this day’, but just ’with us this day’ – these are the souls that will one day be created; that since they have no substance in them, the word \’ standing \’ is not used with them. Although they did not yet exist at that time, still, each one received his share [of the Torah]; for so it says, ‘A pronouncement: The word of the Lord to Israel though Malachi.’ (Mal. 1:1) It does not say ‘in the days of Malachi’, but ’through Malachi’, for his prophecy was already with him since Sinai, but he was not given permission to prophesy until the proper time…. Not only did all the prophets receive their prophecy from Sinai, but also each of the Sages that arose in every generation received his [wisdom] from Sinai, for so it says: ‘These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly.‘ (Deut. 5:19)” (Shemot Rabbah 28:6)

This midrash asserts that Malachi, the last of the prophets, actually received his prophecy at Sinai where he attended the revelation of the Torah as a soul which would one day be created. Rabbi A.J Heschel, in his opus, Torah Min Hashamayim, points out the anomaly found in this statement: “souls with no substance, still uncreated, receive the Torah at Mount Sinai! How can that which is not, receive that which is?” (Heb. Ed. Part 2 p. 259) What stands behind this traditional but ahistorical outlook? This midrash, like the Greek philosopher, Plato, assumes that all wisdom existed in ideal form before creation. For Rabbi Isaac, this meant that all Torah was revealed at Sinai only to be disseminated at the appropriate time. (Ibid. pp. 260-1)

This above approach has become the calling card of the traditional Jewish world although it was never the exclusive view. The rabbinic tradition also recognized the seemingly antithetical idea that wise sages throughout time could formulate new Torah ideas – that which is known as a “hiddush”. Here is a seasonal example: “Thus taught the sages: Hanukkah lights … since they are set aside for us to perform a commandment it is prohibited to use them. One should not say that since the sages commanded it and not the Torah, I will not observe it. Regarding this God said: ‘You are not permitted to say thus, rather all that the Sages decree, it is incumbent upon you to perform… since I (God) agree with their words!” (Tanhuma Naso 29) (See S. Rosenberg, Lo Bashamayim He, p. 18) This idea is consonant with the thought of the modern philosopher, Hegel, who was the first to become aware of historical development of ideas.

Both of these approaches have been turned into dogma by the various modern Jewish movements. It seems to me preferable to view them as models of approaches to explaining our relationship to Torah wisdom which are helpful rather than absolute. Turning any theological model into a dogmatic statement is likely not only to be intellectually misleading but religiously false as well.

About This Commentary

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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