Dov Lerea

Breaking God’s heart

Parashat Toledot
November 5, 2021/Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5782

Malachi was a prophet in Jerusalem during the reconstruction of the second Temple and during the leadership of Ezra and Nechemia. The Babylonian captivity took place in the years 587/6 BCE, and lasted until the rise of the Persian empire in 539 BCE. Scholars place Malachi’s career around the year 420 BCE, some 160 years after the Babylonian exile. The name, Malachi, means, “My messenger,” and the prophet was “burdened” to deliver a very specific message to the Jewish people. A plausible reading of the society is of a people with dim memories of exile and superficial inner lives. In this haftorah Malachi describes God’s unrequited love for the Jewish people. Having returned from exile and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, Malachi describes a heartbroken God who is disappointed and enraged by the people’s casual response to their forever loyal divine partner. Malachi describes God alternatively as Israel’s lover, parent, and even master. The Jewish people, however, have devalued and denigrated whatever meanings each relationship previously might have held for them, and which continue to characterize God’s divine heart and mind. Malachi opens by comparing, just as in the parasha itself, God’s feelings for the brothers Yaakov and Esav:

The burden [to be delivered to Israel] as the word of the LORD through Malachi. I have shown you love, said the LORD. But you ask, “How have You shown us love?” After all—declares the LORD—Esav is Yaakov’s brother; yet I have accepted Yaakov and have rejected Esav. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory a home for beasts of the desert. If Edom thinks, “Though crushed, we can build the ruins again,” God declares: They may build, but I will tear down. And so they shall be known as the region of wickedness, the people damned forever by God. Your eyes shall behold it, and you shall declare, “Great is the LORD beyond the borders of Israel!” (1:1-5)

One feels the divine pathos in these words: “I have loved you!” God said, but your replied, “How have you shown Your love?” It is difficult to imagine a more heartbreaking response to a lover who exposes her heart. Israel was suffering, unconsciously (or consciously) from sacred amnesia, professing no recollection of a romance with God. God exposed God’s self in a moment of vulnerability, only to be shunned. In that short phrase, How have You shown Your love?, the Jewish people exiled God emotionally, banishing God from their consciousness. With these words, described by the word, masa’, “burden,” Malachi clarified the nature of Israel’s spiritual malaise. I might even suggest that the disease from which the Jewish people was suffering was spiritual apathy. Nothing mattered. The Jewish people lacked passion, vision, purpose, meaning beyond themselves. The banishment from Jerusalem caused pain and existential angst. Exile produced yearning, and yearned nourishes hope. The return fulfilled that yearning, replaced then by the banal existence of everyday life.

I read these speeches as Malachi’s attempt, as God’s mouthpiece, to reignite Israel’s awareness of their feelings for God, and to rekindle the emotional intensity that characterized the relationship in the past. Malachi, therefore, invokes the persona of God as father/parent and Master. If the Jewish people coyly asked God, What have You ever done to demonstrate Your love for us? Malachi powerfully turns their own question around, asking, As parent and master, where are the kavod and mora, the honor and awe, due Me? How have you shown me the respect and the awe that would be appropriate to our past together?

The dancing emotions of Jewish apathy and divine yearning move to the literary device of Where is your such-and-such? To which the rhetorical response is, “How have You ever shown me such-and-such?” Malachi, furthermore, deepens the emotional intensity of this impossible conversation by introducing and repeating the word, go’el/גואל, which usually means, “to redeem from exile or slavery,” “save,” but which here means almost the opposite: to defile, to degenerate, to spurn, to ignore, to scorn. The relationship that should have been nourishing, whole, healthy, and life-affirming has instead attrofied, Israel feels nothing, the relationship has become hollow, and the Jews merely preserve the external, behaviors and turn their response to God into a series of perpetual mechanical routines. Their offerings do not come from the heart. The Targum Yonatan on these verses translate the word, megoal with the root, r-ch-q, “distant,” “far away:” מְקָרְבִין אַתּוּן עַל מַדְבְּחִי קָרְבַּן מְרָחֵק. This translation underscores the painful emotional disconnect between God and the Jewish people. The word for “offering” is korban, which means, “to draw close.” Instead, every act of offering from the people was alienating, distant, removed. The people just went through the motions with the least effort possible. How rebuffed God felt.

The people did not select their choicest animals for sacrifices; that would have reflected genuine, heart-felt love. Instead, they offered God their broken animals, the ones they hoped to cast aside in any event. Malachi understood that the people wanted merely to “kill two birds with one stone:”

A son should honor his father, and a slave his master. Now if I am a father, where is the honor due Me? And if I am a master, where is the reverence due Me?—said the LORD of Hosts to you, O Kohanim who scorn My name. But you ask, “How have we scorned Your name?” You offer defiled, m’goal / מגואל, food on My altar. But you ask, “How have we defiled / ge-al-nucha / גְאָלנוּךָ You?” By saying, “The table of the LORD can be treated with scorn.” When you present a blind animal for sacrifice—it doesn’t matter! When you present a lame or sick one—it doesn’t matter! Just offer it to your governor: Will he accept you? Will he show you favor?—said the LORD of Hosts. And now implore the favor of God! Will Hashem be gracious to us? This is what you have done—will God accept any of you? (1:6-9)

Even the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, the Kohanim themselves have cut corners, found loopholes enabling them to offer blind, lame, diseased, broken animals as sacrifices.

Political leaders would not accept such gifts; why make these offerings to the Creator? Malachi’s implicit answer seems to be, “This is what happens when a people lose their yearning, wake up from their dreams and visions, and live only with the false belief that “the redemption has come,” they have “made it,” they returned and all the work necessary has been accomplished. The Temple has been rebuilt, we’ve returned to the land, we are free and well.”

It would be better to close the Temple doors. In contemporary terms, shut the synagogues, close the schools, lock the JCC’s and the community centers. God would prefer to rebuild the relationship without the material expressions of satisfaction and success that have hollowed the heart and neshamot of the people. Judaism, in Malachi’s day, had become cultic performance, scripted, choreographed, but without any impact on the minds, hearts and souls of the people. Ironically, the pagan nations, in their own way, demonstrate more reverence and genuine appreciation for God than the people chosen to signal that consciousness:

The LORD of Hosts has said: If only you would lock My doors, and not kindle fire on My altar to no purpose! I take no pleasure in you—said the LORD of Hosts—and I will accept no offering from you. For from where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name; for My name is honored among the nations—said the LORD of Hosts. But you profane it when you say, “The table of the Lord is defiled and the meat can be treated with scorn.” You say, “Oh, what a bother!” And so you degrade it—said the LORD of Hosts—and you bring the stolen, the lame, and the sick; and you offer such as an oblation. Will I accept it from you?—said the LORD. A curse on the cheat who has an unblemished male in his flock, but for his vow sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord! For I am a great King—said the LORD of Hosts—and My name is revered among the nations. (1:10-14)

When God said, Close the Temple doors; I no longer desire your offerings,” I hear God yearning for the return. Like the spurned lover who slams the door and bellows, I hate you! Never come back, and then, behind the closed door, weeps and yearns to be held once again, as in years past. Rashi quoted the Talmudic passage that expounded on God’s pronouncement that God’s name is great among the pagan nations:

Our Sages stated: For they call Hashem the God of the gods. Even one who has an idol knows that Hashem is the God Who is over all of them – and everywhere they donate in My Name. (Menachot 110a)

In this same passage, also quoted by Rashi, the rabbis offer a second explanation. The phrase, the “nations” actually refers to rabbis studying the laws of sacrificial offerings in exile. In other words, behaviorism without heart, passion, meaning, vision, and yearning, is idolatrous, whereas the abstract study and life of the imagination, in exile, brings the divine heart into the soul of the people:

Our Sages, however, explained: These are the Torah scholars who are engaged in the laws of the Temple service everywhere, and likewise, every prayer of Israel that they pray anywhere is to Me as a pure oblation. And so did Jonathan paraphrase: And every time that you do My will, I accept your prayer, and My great Name is sanctified through you, and your prayer is like a pure offering before Me. This is the explanation of the verse: Now why do you profane My Name? Is it not great among the nations? As for Me, My love and My affection are upon you wherever you pray before Me, and even in exile, [offerings are] burnt and offered up to My Name. (Menachot 110a)

Malachi’s final warnings are harsh. What is striking, however, is that Malachi references the heart explicitly: And now, O Kohanim, this charge is for you: Unless you obey and unless you lay it to heart, and do honor to My name—said the LORD of Hosts—I will send a curse and turn your blessings into curses….(2:1-7) The Malbim, Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 19th century Ukraine, explained that this reference to the heart was a matter of awareness, an awakening.

Malachi’s message resonates in today’s world. The behaviorisms of religion are most pronounced. The spirit of humanity that God hoped to nourish relationally with the Jewish people, has atrophied. If this were not true, there would be more kindness than cruelty, more altruism and less avarice, more truth and less falsehood, more humility and less arrogance, more awe and less oblivion, more quiet and less noise, more justice and less persecution, less hatred and more love. With all of the resurgence of religious lifestyles, and the energy attending to the punctilious observances of religious ritual and law, people, along with the physical planet God created for us, seem alienated and exiled from each other, just as in Malachi’s day. May we take his motivational prophecies to heart.

Shabbat Shalom in the month of the miracle of light,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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