Malachi lived at the tail-end of the prophetic period. The times were not easy and there was much room for disillusionment and despair. Cynicism reigned, even, or should I say, especially among the religious leadership, who carried out their religious duties without sincerity. God felt unappreciated, disregarded, and offended, leading the prophet Malachi to respond with this rhetorical message: “And now entreat, pray, God that He be gracious to us. From your hand this was. Will He show favor to you? said the Lord of Hosts. Who then among you would close double doors and not kindle the fire on the altar in vain? I have no desire of you – said the Lord of Hosts – and with grain offering from your land I will not be pleased.” (1:9-10) God challenged the people’s expectation that He would act graciously despite their behavior. Instead, the prophet’s message was that their scornful behavior would be answered in return with God’s scorn.
The Tosefta, a rabbinic work from the period of the Mishnah, makes explicit Malachi’s message: “When the priests do My (God’s) will, what is said regarding them: ‘I (God) have given them as their portion My offering by fire’ (Leviticus 6:10), namely, from that which is theirs they take [and offer] and not from that which is mine; but when they do not do God’s will, what is said of them? ‘Who then among you would close double doors and not kindle the fire on the altar in vain? I have no desire of you – said the Lord of Hosts.’” (Tosefta Demai 2:8 Lieberman ed. p. 82) The point of this teaching is that God only desires offerings which are sincere. If they are not sincere, then the offerings are not considered to have been owned by those who offered them but rather the property of God, and it is as if nothing at all was offered.
This teaching is a lesson aimed directly at the religious leadership of the Jewish people, but relevant to all of us as well. Being Jewish requires sincerity and depth. It is not an in the door and out the door experience. It requires walking the walk and not just talking the talk. It requires investment of time and energy, an infusion of joy and love – not just empty acts – what Heschel called “religious behaviorism”. God sees when our acts are vacuous like the acts of the priests mentioned above. God sees when our acts are absent. More significantly, our children see and our fellow Jews (let alone our neighbors) see when there is no depth – no enthusiasm – no spirit behind who we are and what we do. Malachi bids us to remember this as we shape our lives.