The precise identity of the last prophet in Trei Asar, the navi Malachi, is shrouded in mystery, with the Gemara in Megilla (15a) quoting various opinions, including those identifying him as Ezra or as Mordechai. Most scholars, however, agree with the majority opinion of the rabbis that Malachi was a separate and distinct individual who prophesied during the period of Bayit Sheni. And, although the exact time of his activities is also in question, most contend that Malachi was the last of the biblical nevi’im, so that his prophecies remain the last words of God delivered to the nation of Israel. As such, it is interesting to analyze this week’s haftarah, the first perek in Sefer Malachi, and find messages directed to the navi’s contemporaries but also meaningful for the future exiled generations who would, after all, lack the prophetic connection to Hashem that the people had throughout biblical times.
Much of the haftarah focuses upon the kohanim, the “priests” who attended Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash, Bayit Sheni. The Second Temple had already been built and was fully functioning, once again making Yerushalayim the center of worship for the Jewish nation. The Holy Temple that Hashem described as the place He chose “l’shaken sh’mo sham,” as the dwelling place of His “Name,” was serving all of Israel once more. Likewise, the kohanim had returned to their rightful post as servants of Hashem in the Beit HaMikdash. But rather than sanctify the name of God Who dwelled there, the kohanim are accused of being “bozei sh’mi,” those who scorned and defamed His holy name.
But what has this to do with our parsha? Why did Chazal choose this chapter from the nevi’im to be read for Parshat Toldot? The navi Malachi begins his words by stating that Hashem had chosen Yaakov over Eisav, much as Yitzchak chose to confer the bracha of Avraham (birkat Avraham) on Yaakov and not on his eldest, Eisav. Hashem’s choice of Yaakov’s nation over that of Eisav, the navi states, was based upon the fact that he hated the nation of Eisav (“v’et Eisav saneiti”) due to their treatment of Yisrael. For this reason, Malachi explains, the land of Edom was doomed to destruction. However, the navi emphasizes that Hashem’s anger at Edom would not automatically provide Israel with redemption. It is essential that the Jews earn God’s favor by properly worshipping Him as He commanded them to. The corruption of the sacrificial rite that ran rampant at the time is the focus of the prophet’s harsh words against the kohanim, Hashem’s attendants who believed that perfunctory ritual in the Beit Hamikdash is all that was necessary. Their practice of offering sickly animals as sacrifices while saving the healthy ones for themselves was abhorrent to God.
Malachi paints the picture of what the kohanim should be: They must be more than ritual functionaries; they must be teachers and arbiters and they must be the ones to spread the knowledge of Torah and, through that understanding, the knowledge of Hashem. The prophet’s message closes with the reminder that the tribe of Levi had a special covenant with God and, over the generations, they turned people away from sin. It is this that Hashem demands of the kohanim. And it is this that Hashem demands of Israel.
Israel must earn the favor of God and not take for granted that, due to His anger at Eisav, at the enemies of the Jewish nation, He will embrace Israel. This last prophet of Israel prepares the nation for the long galut that would follow by reminding them that it will not be the sacrificial rite that will preserve them in the Diaspora, but the Torah taught by the kohanim who, when doing their job faithfully, fulfill their responsibility as teachers of Israel and agents of Hashem.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.