April 3, 2004
The special haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat which precedes Pesach, opens with a verse found in the prayers appended to the end of the Amidah: “Then shall the offering (minchah) of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant (v’arvah) unto the Lord as in the days of old and as in ancient years.” (Malachi 3:4) When added to our prayers, the ostensible meaning of this verse is that our prayers should be treated by God as if they were like the “sacrifices of old” which we believe to have been especially pleasing to God.
What gave the “sacrifices of old” qualities pleasing to God? Rabbi Meir Simcha from Dvinsk (Lithuania – 19-20th century), in his monumental commentary on the Torah – ‘Meshech Chochmah’ (Cooperman ed. vol. 1, p. 346-8), attempts a homiletic answer to this question by focusing on two words in the verse. First, he examines the meaning of the word “arev – pleasant”. He contrasts the Hebrew word “matok – sweet” with the word “arev – pleasant” and notes that something is “sweet” if it has the quality of “sweetness” in and of itself but the word “arev” connotes something that acquires the quality of pleasantness only when mixed with other things. As an example, he points out that the incense in the Temple was made of many different ingredients not all of them pleasant. When they were combined, however, they were pleasing before God.
Similarly, he notes that the minchah or meal offering could not be offered by partners acting as distinct individuals but could be offered by the community acting as a single entity. The Talmud bases this ruling on the fact that the Torah uses the singular form of the noun “nefesh – person” when it discusses the laws regarding the minchah offering. (See Menachot 104b based on Leviticus 2:1) What might create the communal unity required for making an offering before God? To answer this question, the Meshech Chochmah offers a midrashic comparison based on the word “nefesh”. When Esau is mentioned with his family and household, the Torah uses the word “nfashot” in the plural while when it describes Jacob with his household it uses the same word in the singular – “nefesh”. What can we learn from this distinction? Esau’s family lacked religious unity. Each member of his household worshipped a different deity. Consequently, there could be no unity before God. But Jacob’s family members were all united in their worship of God. This made their offering acceptable and pleasing before God. (see Leviticus Rabbah 4:6)
Pesach is a holiday which sees all different kinds of Jews sitting down together to celebrate the redemption of our people from Egyptian bondage. May we, in all of our diversity, achieve the sense of primordial unity necessary to make our prayers and offerings pleasing before God this Pesach and in all seasons.
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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