Sunday, November 3, 2013


(A representation of what I said during services last Friday night.)

My father's yahrzeit is coming up this Friday, 5 Kislev. My father was not much for speaking in shul. In fact, I can only remember one occasion from my childhood when he did so and then I only remember the way he opened. But it must have been this week.

"I want to speak in defense of Esau," he began. I don't recall any of the specifics, but I know that opening was just a rhetorical device, for after he went through the "poor victim, he loved his father" bit, it became clear that my father knew perfectly well that Yaakov Avinu was the good guy in the story.

In the course of the past thirty-three years, I have had more than my share of maftir this week, bringing with it the reading of the haftarah – the final prophet Malachi, from the beginning through the first seven verses of chapter two.  (To be clear, I know that because of Rosh Hodesh we do not actually read this haftara this year…)

The general assumption seems to be that the portion and the haftarah is contained in the opening verses:

The burden of the word of the L-rd to Israel by Malachi.
I have loved you, says the L-rd. Yet you say: 'In what way have You loved us?' Was not Esau Yaakov's brother? says the L-rd; yet I loved Yaakov;
But Esau I hated, and made his mountains  desolate, and gave his heritage to the jackals of the wilderness.
ForEdom says: 'We are devastated, but we shall return and rebuild the desolate places';[But] thus saith the L-rd of hosts: They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall be called "the border of wickedness, and the people whom the L-rd finds offensive, forever."

OK. But there are simpler, more colorful ways to make the same point, as we will do in two weeks. Ovadiah verse 18 writes:

And it will be that the House of Yaakov is fire, and the House of Yosef is flame, and the house of Esau is straw, and they shall kindle them and devour them and there will be no remnant of the House of Esau, as the L-rd has spoken.

That is memorable. And trust me, it's even better in Hebrew.

So last year, I had maftir and read Malachi and I said to Rabbi David Shapiro, a relative newcomer to our shul who recently made aliyah from Boston, that after all these years, this particular haftarah really doesn't speak to me and that I should probably learn it more thoroughly. A couple of days later, he brought me two pages of notes from things that his rebbe – Rabbi Yitzhak Asher Twersky, the Tolner Rebbe – said twenty-four, twenty-one and eighteen years ago and those notes are the basis for what I want to say now. An approach that takes a more comprehensive view of Esau.

Despite the "to Israel" of the opening verse, malachi's words are directed specifically to the kohanim, the priests in the Temple. The Establishment.

Verse 6 (and I shall be using the Koren translation from here on, though not always their punctuation):
A son honors his father and a servant his master; if then, I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the L-rd of hosts, O priests who despise my name.

And he gets specific in verses 7-8:
You offer disgusting bread upon my altar; and you say "In what have we polluted thee?" In THAT you say "The table of the L-rd in contemptible." And if you offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? Offer it now to thy governor – will he be pleased with thee or will he show you favor?

What is technically valid should should always be acceptable. Like the piece of meat that fell into the chamber pot – it may be kosher, but it stinks.

And it's even worse when presented in comparison, verses 11-12.
From the rising of the sun until it goes down, my name is great among the nations; and in every place incense is burnt and sacrifices are offered to my name, , and a pure offering. For my name is great among the nations, says the L-rd of hosts. But you profane it.
The nations understand but our own, who should know better, do not.

Followed by verse 13, which the Talmud uses to illustrate a mitzvah that is facilitated by a sin:
And you have brought [as a sacrifice] that which was [stolen] and the lame and the sick…should I accept this at your hand?

And in verse 14, he begins "Cursed be the deceiver," referring to claims to do the best he can but in truth is doing the bare minimum. And he completes that verse and the chapter by once again stating that G-d's name is feared among the nations, with the implication that not so among the kohanim in His own Temple.

R' Shapiro explains, as he quotes the Tolner:
The theme here is chilul Hashem. This always means "profaning the name – the reputation, the image – of the Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the Universe] as subjectively perceived by human beings. We cannot affect His objective essence." This chilul Hashem is a function of our disingenuous relationship to Him. We have here a full-blown characterization of [Esau].

The second chapter speaks of the consequences that await these tainted kohanim, including (verse 3):
Behold I will rebuke your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your [holidays].

The Tolner then brings several quotes from the Rambam (Maimonides).
Not everything that is not invalid may be brought intentionally. How is that? A person who is required to bring an offering should not bring a lean or disformed sheep and say "It has no blemish." For to him it is said "Cursed be the deceiver." [verse 14 above] But anything he brings for a sacrifice should be from the very best.
Things not fit for the altar, Ch. 7

Two quotes from the Rambam refer to the bit about spreading dung and "dung of your holidays." One refers to how a respectable person should conduct himself and one refers to a person whose holiday feasts are not shared with the poor.

Rabbi Shapiro concludes:
The upshot of these three passages in the Rambam is: A [sacrifice] can be defective, indeed despicable, although there is nothing formally wrong with it; the person's insensitivity can render his [sacrifice] revolting to the [Master of the Universe]. Similarly, one's observance of [holidays] can be defective, although on the surface he is complying fully with all halachic requirements. By extension, all out activities have to be pursued with sensitivity and thoughtfulness, and with a determination to avoid insincerity, cynicism and callousness.

This is the hallmark of Yaakov and stands in contrast to [our sages'] typology of [Esau]. This is the deeper connection between today's haftarah and parshah.

Oh, how my father hated hypocrites!

1 comment:

  1. Avoiding cynicism, eh? I don't think your dad (A"H) would have liked me :-(