Picking up the Broken Pieces by Rabbi Mark Smilowitz


            The Haftarah each week is supposed to parallel the theme of the Parsha.  The struggle between Yaakov and Esav for the birthright in Parashat Toldot is reflected in this week's Haftarah, the beginning of Sefer Malachi, which opens with a prophecy in which Hashem professes his love of Israel over Esav.   After the Babylonian exile, which decimated not only Israel but many other countries as well, Hashem promises that the Jewish country will be restored to its original glory, whereas Edom, having descended from Esav, shall remain desolate and abandoned.

            What seems troublesome is that the Haftarah finishes the comparison between Israel and Edom within the first five verses. The rest of the Haftarah's twenty‑two verses have nothing to do with Yaakov and Esav. Rather, the focus of the rest of the Haftarah is Hashem chastising the Jewish people, particularly the priests, for neglecting the Temple service, falling into the habit of offering blemished or sick animals as sacrifices, and developing an attitude of laziness and halfheartedness in the sacrificial service.  Why, then, was this selection chosen as the Haftarah to Toldot? What does laziness in the Temple service have to do with our Parsha?

            If we are aware of the background to the Haftarah and the particular problem of laziness in the Temple service, perhaps we can discover a connection to our Parsha.  Neglecting the Temple service is a phenomenon new to the Second Temple.  We never hear any complaints about it during the First Temple.  On the contrary, both Yeshaya and Yirmiya criticized the people for putting too much emphasis on the sacrificial service (see for example Yeshaya 1:10‑17; Yirmiya 7:21‑23).  Even while drenched with immoral and idolatrous activity, the people of the First Temple era hypocritically maintained the Temple service as  their last source of religious pride and glory.  It seems that the Temple and its service was a symbol for the people that Hashem was with them and would protect them, no matter how steeped in sin they may become.  Of course, it was only for so long that Hashem could tolerate His Temple being used as a refuge for the morally bankrupt, so He destroyed it.

            The psychological and theological impact of this destruction and the subsequent exile upon the people of Israel was deep and long lasting.  The glorious, indestructible symbol of Hashem's presence had been destroyed.  Their Titanic had been sunk, so to speak. A study of the books of Chaggai, Ezra and Zecharya with their commentaries, reveals a long lasting national psyche of despair in the aftermath of the destruction. The pervading feeling was that Hashem had abandoned us, and from now on things could never be the same.  Even when seventy years later the Jews are called back to their country by Cyrus, many stay behind, and even those who do go are unimpressed with the restoration of the Temple.  Looking back to the glorious days of Israel's past, there was little hope that anything like it could ever be resurrected.  Gone are the days when Hashem leads us miraculously from Egypt, conquering our enemies on our way into Israel.  Gone are the days of glory of Solomon's Temple, when all nations looked to Israel as a superpower of vast wealth and wisdom.  Gone are the days of Israel as a political force and center of religion for all Jews. Never can we return to our original place in the center of history.

            It is this sense of despair and feeling of being abandoned which generates the lackadaisical attitude to Temple worship. The people and priests were no longer enthusiastic about bringing offerings to a Deity who abandoned them and who let the "eternal" symbol of His greatness be destroyed by heathens. It is this attitude which Malachi criticizes in our Haftarah. "If I am a Father, where is My honor?  And if I am a Master, where is My fear?"  Ironically, Malachi encounters exact opposite problem from that of his predecessors Yeshaya and Yirmiya.  Whereas in the past people were overconfident in Hashem's power and in their special relationship with Hashem, now the people have no confidence and doubt their relationship with Hashem (thanks to Moshe Simon for this formulation).

            Thus, the main message of the Haftarah is that even though the First Temple is gone, it is a mistake to think that the Covenant is over and that Hashem has ended His relationship with His people.  The destruction was only a punishment, and now that it is over, Hashem is ready to fully return to His close relationship with the Jewish people, if only they decide to recover from their wounds and devote serious effort to rebuilding their country and their religious institutions.  If they accept the challenge, then things for Israel could really be as they once were.

            There is a strong message in Parshat Toldot which closely resembles this message of Malachi.  Avraham, the first man to have made a special covenant with Hashem, a man whose life was set aside to walk in Hashem's ways, who was a symbol to all of the utmost devotion to Hashem's service, has died.  In the wake of his death, questions arise: Has his legacy died with him? Have all the promises made to him come to an end?  Will his children ever be able to restore such greatness to the world?  In the aftermath of Avraham's death, there is doubt and hesitation about the ability for his legacy to continue.  The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, alludes to this problem.  "The scoffers of that generation said, 'Sarah was impregnated [with Isaac] by Avimelech, for she had been with Avraham for many years and had never become pregnant by him.'" Perhaps there was no one and no way to continue Avraham's legacy, and all his accomplishments died with him.  Yet, the Midrash continues, "What did Hashem do? He made the countenance of Isaac's face resemble Avraham's so that all would testify: "Avraham begot Isaac.'"  No, Hashem's Covenant is not over.  There is in fact someone to continue the legacy of Avraham.

            In fact, much of Parshat Toldot is devoted to showing how the events in Isaac's life followed the same pattern of the events in  Avraham's life.  Both have trouble bearing children.  Both have two children who vie for the position of inheritor of the Covenant, and both's wives make the correct choice between the two sons while the father may have favored the other.  Both descend to the South to escape a famine, and there both meet Avimelech and grow in riches from him.  Both have their wives pretend to be their sisters in order to escape death.  Both have trouble keeping their wells from the hands of the Plishtim and both made peace treaties with the Plishtim.  Both are promised by Hashem that they will have children and inherit the land, and both build altars and call out in the name of Hashem.  There are too many parallels to be just coincidence.  Isaac's life cries out the word continuity.  The idea which is conveyed is that we are mistaken to think that Avraham's accomplishments are buried with him.  Parashat Toldot leaves no doubt that even after the loss of a great luminary, the legacy continues with his child.

            Thus, both the Parsha and the Haftarah contain the same message.  Judaism continues even after serious setbacks.  What an important message this is for us today in the aftermath of the destruction in Europe.  In fact, many Jews have drawn the conclusion from the Holocaust that Hashem has fundamentally changed the nature of His relationship with us, that Judaism has been radically altered, and that our obligations to Hashem have changed.  Like those who claimed that after the death of Abraham the legacy was over, and like those who felt that the destruction of the Temple was the end of the Jewish people, they claim that Judaism cannot continue as it once was.  We cannot comment conclusively on the meaning of the Holocaust, but we can say that the Covenant of Hashem is still fully intact, and that Hashem is ready to restore His relationship with us to what it once was.  As in the days of Malachi, He is waiting for us to pick ourselves up and redouble our efforts to reclaim our religion and our relationship with Him.  He gave us Israel to help us in our efforts to regain respect and glory among the nations.  If we face up to the challenge, we can restore our people, our nation, and our religion to the high points of ages past, when nations once again will say, "Surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people."

Keen Perception by Johnathon Dregani

Avraham's Insight by Ari Teman