Haftarat Toldot: A True Cohain


[Ashkenazim/Sefardim: Malachi 1:1-2:7

Yemenite Jews: Malachi 1:1-3:4]

 

In our Haftarah, the prophet Malachi bitterly laments the catastrophic state of the priesthood during the period of the Second Temple: the cohanim had turned into the lowest level of technocrats offering sacrifices.  Following the behavior of the cohanim, Malachi warns with anger: "Hashem of Hosts says to you: O Cohanim, you who despise My name.  And you respond: In what way have we despised Your name?  You offer disgusting bread on My altar and you say: In what way have we polluted You?" (Malachi 1:6-7).  The prophet emphasizes that the religion has changed radially from what it is supposed to be, service and closeness to Hashem, into something mechanical, a ruse close to idol worship, a device designed to attain favors from Heaven.  If service of Hashem could sink to the level of business for profit, why shouldn't the cohanim limit their expenses?  They simply decided: we have spoiled food which cannot be used, so why don’t we save money by offering it on the altar? After all, either way it will be burned in the fire, and G-d Himself will not notice anything!

 

The cohanim were unaware of the seriousness of their behavior, and their attempts at justification made their transgression even worse.  "In that you say: The table of Hashem is contemptible" (7).  You are profaning Hashem's Name and turning the religion into a business of fraud.  "And if you offer the blind for a sacrifice, is it not evil?  And if you offer lame and sick animals, is it not evil?  Please offer it to your governor; will he be pleased with you or will he show you favor? – says Hashem of Hosts" (8).  "You have brought stolen, lame and sick animals as a sacrifice.  Should I accept this from your hand? – says Hashem" (13).  We must not forget that a worker in the Temple, whether a cohain or a levi, is before all else an educator.  Before his death, Moshe Rabbenu described the role of the Tribe of Levi in this way: "They shall teach Your statutes to Yaakov and Your Torah to Israel.  They shall place incense before Your presence and burnt offerings on Your altar" (Devarim 33:10).

 

They were obviously involved in the holy service in the Temple, but they also had great influence over Torah learning throughout the entire Land.  Their role in the Temple only occupied them for a few weeks each year.  During the remaining time, they would travel from place to place to teach, educate and build spirituality. This was all in order to come closer to G-d, since they themselves were capable of getting ensnared in the monotonous routine of daily life and forgetting about the light (Maran Ha-Rav Kook in Orot, Orot Ha-Techiya 4).

 

Our prophets returned to this topic with a special emphasis.  "And you should know that I have sent this commandment to you, so that My covenant will be with Levi, says Hashem of Hosts.  My covenant was with him for life and peace, and I gave them fear with which he feared Me and was afraid of My Name" (Malachi 2:4-5).  The cohain – and in our time, the educator - needs to actualize in his own life the great ideals which he will teach to others: awe of Hashem and humility.  The Divine service he performed in the Temple was not merely the focus of his activities -  it had to be his way of life as well.  His service was built upon an inner sense of nullifying one's ego before the Creator, a merging of one's character with the Divine light.  "The Torah of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found on his lips" (6).  The character became united with the Torah in all of its truth.  Intellect and emotion are Torah, the body and the spirit are Torah.  And unjust words never departed his lips.

 

His behavior was to be without stain, and his societal relations were to be the climax of his purity: "He walked with me in peace and uprightness" (6).  Closeness to Hashem must reveal itself not only in the highest spheres of his character but also in his interpersonal relations.  When people would meet a person such as this, they would have to be influenced.  Before they would judge the cohain on his actions or his worship, they would judge him on his behavior towards other people.  They thus would see that the Kingdom of Hashem is not only in Heaven, but is also on earth; that the awe of Hashem which fills and directs the cohain is expressed through behavior of peace and love.  Therefore, "many turned away from iniquity" (6).  In order to return others to the straight path, one must first be an example of uprightness himself.

 

"For the cohain's lips should keep knowledge and they should seek Torah from his mouth" (7): The cohain is a man of knowledge, a Torah scholar, but the essence is "for he is an angel of Hashem of Hosts" (ibid.).  He is an angel on earth!  This expression says it all!  Our Sages rule that one should only learn Torah from a rabbi without blemish.  "If the rabbi is similar to an angel of Hashem, seek Torah from his mouth, and if not, do not seek Torah from his mouth" (Moed Katan 17a).

 

The Torah is not only a theoretical science, it is instruction for life.  It is told that a professor of Jewish thought was asked by a student: "Why doesn't his honor perform what he teaches?"  He responded: "Does a math professor have to be a triangle?"  The comparison obviously lacks reason.

 

Our Sages tell us that in a large city in Babylonia, with many wise people, there was once a great rabbi who allowed himself to be involved in extra-marital relations – and this caused major gossip.  The Sages were extremely distressed by this desecration of Hashem's Name.  After a difficult discussion, they decided to excommunicate him (Moed Katan ibid.).  One needs great courage for a decision such as this, but it was necessary since their rabbi, despite his wisdom, was far from being an angel of Hashem.