This week’s parasha, Tzav (Command) Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36, continues from last week’s reading with further instructions on how the various mitzvoth named are to be performed, as well as the consecration of the priests and the Tabernacle. This Shabbat is also Shabbat HaGagol, the Shabbat before Pesach, and while there is not an additional Torah reading for this Shabbat there is a special Haftarah reading, Malachi 3:4-24.[i]
Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote,
Little does religion ask of contemporary man. It is ready to offer comfort; it has no courage to challenge. It is ready of offer edification; it has no courage to break the idols, to shatter the callousness. The trouble is that religion has become “religion” – institution, dogma, ritual. It is not an event any more. Its acceptance involves neither risk nor strain.[ii]
Heschel’s words call to mind the words of the Almighty through the prophet Malachi. While the Haftarah begins on a positive note, “…the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of yore and in the years of old” (3:4), it does not stay positive,
But [first] I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the LORD of Hosts. (3:5)
Malachi seems to present the same lament against the people as is common among most of the prophets. Little attention was given to social concerns and welfare. Idolatry and adultery were common place, if not blatant, at least in the hearts and minds of the people. The covenant the people agreed to at the base of Mt. Sinai received little more than lip service if even that. The Psalmist records the lament of Adonai concerning wayward Israel,
But My people would not listen to Me, Israel would not obey Me. So, I let them go after their willful heart that they might follow their own devices. If only My people would listen to Me, if Israel would follow My paths, then I would subdue their enemies at once, strike their foes again and again. (Psalms 81:12-15)
But as is the case, HaShem did not abandon Israel, leaving them adrift in their transgression and disobedience. Malachi continued, “I am the LORD – I have not changed; and you are the children of Jacob – you have not ceased to be. From the very days of your fathers you have turned away from My laws and have not observed them. Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you says the LORD of Hosts,” (Malachi 3:6-7). As HaShem gently explained to Cain, that his anger, and jealousy did not have to rule over him, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, it will lift. But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the doorway. Its desire is for you, but you must master it,” (Genesis 4:6-7).[iii]
Malachi knew that Israel can do better, that the God of Israel desired to do good on their behalf. But the religious practices had become lip service and the attitude of the heart had run to disobedience and ruin. In verses seven through nineteen, the LORD brings His case against the unrighteous and disobedient, ending with the pronouncement that there will be a soon coming day when the wicked will perish but the righteous will rise victorious in the LORD’s radiance.
Rav Shaul, using the Exodus as a backdrop, warned the believers in Corinth not to follow the bad example set by Israel.
Now these things happened as examples for us, so we wouldn’t crave evil things, just as they did. … Now these things happened to them as an example, and it was written down as a warning to us—on whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Corinthians 10:6 & 11, TLV).
Rather we should look expectantly to the LORD for His assistance and strength,
Therefore, let the one who thinks that he stands watch out that he doesn’t fall. No temptation has taken hold of you except what is common to mankind. But God is faithful—He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can handle. But with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, so you will be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:12-13, TLV).
James, in his letter to Messianic Jews in the Diaspora wrote,
If anyone thinks he is religious and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is futile. Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27, TLV)
James’ concept of true religion and Heschel’s opinion of the current state of religion seem to be polar opposites. Equally, of all the aspects of true religion that James could mention, he targets that with which Malachi closed, that being care for widows and orphans – those in the community least likely to be able to care for themselves. Our religious practice should offer comfort, but it must also challenge us to change for the better while meeting the needs of others that are brought into our sphere of influence. While our religious practice offers edification and encouragement, it must have the strength and determination to stand against the wiles of the evil one.
One last note, the Haftarah ends with the announcement from HaShem, “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the LORD,” (3:23). The purpose of Elijah’s coming is for familial reconciliation – bringing families who are apart back together again. It is that reconciliation for which we pray, and as we invite Elijah to join us next Friday evening for the Seder, may true reconciliation be realized throughout our lands.
[ii] Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Insecurity of Freedom, New York, Schocken Books, 1959, p 1.
[iii] Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Snellville, Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society, 2015.