Toldot: Bringing Our Best Selves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This week’s haftarah, for the Torah portion Toldot, is the opening
chapter of the Book of Malachi (plus a few verses from chapter 2.)
It’s not entirely clear exactly when the prophet lived, or even who he
was, since “malachi” means “my messenger” in Hebrew and thus the name
of the prophet could simply be a literary device.

Another interesting aspect of the text is the rhetoric of dialogue
that the prophet uses to rebuke the people for their lack of attention
to religious matters- he proposes something and then portrays how the
people would answer back. For example, in the second verse of the
text, the prophet, speaking in the name of God, portrays the people as
lacking in basic faith:

“I have shown you love, said the Lord. But you ask, ‘How have You
shown us love? ‘ ” (Malachi 1:2)

Although the putative connection between our haftarah and the Torah
portion is the comparison of the nation descended from Ya’akov to the
nation descended from his brother Esav (the struggle between the
brothers is the major theme of the Torah portion), I think there is
another message as well.

As the prophet rebukes the people for being lax and stingy in how the
make their religious offerings, it seems that it’s not so much the
fact of imperfect or lesser-quality offerings that is offensive but
rather the attitude, the inner state, of the people who bring them.
For example:

“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.” (1:14)

As I read it this passage, it’s not so much about the animal, but
about the “cheat” whose religious behavior is cynical and selfish.
While it’s true that the Torah prescribes certain kinds of offerings-
such as unblemished animals- and proscribes others- such as maimed
ones- it also seems to me that the prophet is saying: you are beloved,
and desired for spiritual relationship with the Holy One, but a
covenantal relationship requires effort and commitment. If you put
only a half-hearted effort into your spiritual life, don’t expect
great things from it.

So often Judaism is criticized as “legalistic” or ritual is dismissed
as superstition. Certainly religious ritual is not magic, working
regardless of the inner life of the one who prays. This, to me, is the
prophet’s rebuke to the people: one cannot just do rituals without
bringing one’s best self to the practice and expect wonderful results.
“Best self” does not mean we’re perfect- it means that we’re trying as
best we can to be whole and honest and of integrity before the Source
of Life.

When we do this, ritual becomes transformative; when we “cheat,” just
going through the motions, it can be boring and lifeless. That’s what
the prophet wants the people to understand, then as now.

Shabbat Shalom (and happy Thanksgiving to my American readers),


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