Haftarah – A Warning Learned from Esav’s Faults

Nov 14, 2016

Photo credit: Yehoshua Halevi

מַשָּׂ֥א דְבַר־יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּיַ֖ד מַלְאָכִֽי׃

A pronouncement: The word of Hashem to Yisrael through Malachi.

ma-SA d'-var a-do-NAI el yis-ra-AYL b'-yad mal-a-KHEE

Malachi 1:1

כִּֽי־שִׂפְתֵ֤י כֹהֵן֙ יִשְׁמְרוּ־דַ֔עַת וְתוֹרָ֖ה יְבַקְשׁ֣וּ מִפִּ֑יהוּ כִּ֛י מַלְאַ֥ךְ יְהֹֽוָה־צְבָא֖וֹת הֽוּא׃

For the lips of a Kohen guard knowledge, And men seek rulings from his mouth; For he is a messenger of the lord of Hosts.

kee sif-TAY kho-HAYN yish-m'-ru DA-at v'-to-RAH y'-vak-SHU mi-PEE-hu KEE mal-AKH a-do-nai tz'-va-OT HU

Malachi 2:7

In 1897, after the First Zionist Congress, an American Evangelical pastor named William E. Blackstone sent Theodor Herzl a bible marking all the references to the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel.  Blackstone’s fervent campaign for the Jewish return to Israel continued even as leading Jewish Zionists, including Herzl himself, promoted the Uganda plan.  According to historians, Herzl kept the Blackstone’s bible on his desk throughout the years, and Blackstone’s ideas and writings appear to have been important influences for Herzl’s own commitment to Zionism.  Blackstone’s worked even earned him the title of the “Father of Zionism” by Louis Brandeis and other prominent Zionists and historians, as he pre-dated the efforts of Herzl, and remained unwavering in his belief that the only acceptable plan was one that allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel.  While others, even other Zionists, scoffed at the idea of a Jewish return to Israel, Blackstone maintain his committed belief.  This message the Jewish people’s scorn of their birthright plays an important role in the connection between the Parasha and Haftarah.

The obvious connection between our Parasha and Haftara is that both address the division between Yaakov and Esav, and God’s ultimate preference for the descendants of Yaakov.  However, a careful read gives us perspective on two important questions. First, what is the reason that Yaakov is chosen to be the sole heir of Yitzchak and Rivkah’s legacy?  What is it about Eisav’s character that leads the Navi to say “Was not Esav the brother of Jacob…yet I loved Jacob, but I hated Esav…” (Malachi 1:2-3), and where do we see this in the text?  Second, how does the bulk of haftarah, which is a rebuke to the priests for bringing blemished sacrifices, relate to the first verses about God’s distaste for Esav, as well as our parasha?

With all the negativity that Esav faces from midrashim and the Sages, the Torah offers little in the way of explicit critique that explains why Esav is so poorly regarded, except for a four word phrase in our Parasha.  After selling the rights of first-born to Yaakov for a bowl of soup, Esav feels refreshed and goes on his way.  Lest you think Esav was coerced when he felt weak into selling these rights, the Torah testifies that even after he regained his strength, “Eisev spurned (from the Hebrew word B.Z.H.) the birthright (25:34).  In addition to the additional physical inheritance to which he would be entitled, Chizkuni adds that, as the bechor, he would have the role of the priest (which was later earned by Levi and taken away from Reuven, Yaakov’s first born).  With this act, Esav rejected his lofty destiny; however, the Torah does not hold Eisav accountable for the sale of the birthright, but rather he is critiqued because of the attitude of contempt or scorn that it revealed.

Malachi’s critique of the kohanim is connected to this attitude of Eisav, and the navi uses a similar word (B.Z.H) to rebuke the priests’ practice of bringing blemished offerings (1:6).  Of course, blemished animals are disqualified as sacrifices; nevertheless, Hashem’s protest is focused on the scornful attitudes of contempt that permit the kohanim to bring these flawed animals in the first place.  Incredibly, as Radak and Metzudat David note, the navi points to idolatrous nations as positive examples for these kohanim, because at least they demonstrate appropriate reverence (Y.R.A) for their gods(1:11-12)!

The haftarah is setting up a parallel between Eisav, the bechor (and according to Chizkuni, the presumed priest of the family), and the kohanim in the times of Malachi.  Eisav forfeited his rights due to his mocking attitude toward his birthright (the mefarshim see this as a trait passed down through his descendants, showing up in Amalek and in Haman—see Ba’al Haturim and Maharam MaRotenberg, who comment that the same word, B.Z.H is used regarding Haman).  Hashem is warning the priests not to follow Eisav’s derisive footsteps, as He does not wish to reject them as He did Esav.  The Navi urges the priests instead to emulate their forefathers, Levi, Aharon, and Pinchas, whose personalities embodied the opposite of scorn—reverence (2:5)—which will ultimately bring back Hashem’s favor and the restoration of the covenant of peace.

The Jewish people’s right to the land of Israel is evident to anyone who reads the Bible and believes in its prophets.  And yet, the leaders who were positioned to effect that reality wavered, and it required the example of a non-Jewish theologian to remind us of our biblical rights to the land.  Now that we have been granted this gift, the lesson of the Parasha and Haftara is that it is our responsibility to approach our role as inhabitants of the land with reverence and gratitude, and resist the tendency to become complacent and show scorn for our rights and responsibilities.

Rabbi Tuly Weisz is the director of Israel365 and editor of “The Israel Bible,” and Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a psychologist and a new Oleh to Israel, as well as a rebbe in Yeshivat Lev Hatorah.  Please send comments to Haftarah@TheIsraelBible.com

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