Tzav - Haftarah
Haftarah for Parshas HaGadol
It’s Shabbat haGadol, Man!
I was always taught that this haftarah provides one of the reasons for calling this Sabbath “haGadol” because the second to last verse uses that word in its reference to God sending Elijah the Prophet before the advent of the Day of God haGadol ve-haNora, the great and wondrous. A more careful read shows that the haftarah stresses the Jewish people’s responsibility to make the Hand of God more obvious in the world, which provides an independent reason for it to become the haftarah for the Sabbath before Passover.
Punishment as Part of Showing God in the World
In the first part of the haftarah, God promises our sacrifices will one day again be as pleasing as “of old.” Leviticus Rabbah points out that Noah’s sacrifices were referred to as a “a pleasing smell,” just like ours. When God sets a standard for what sacrifices would be like, then, why would the bar not be set at getting back to Noah’s level of sacrifice?
Verse 6 records a complaint of God’s that offers an answer. God complains that He has not changed, and the Jews have not ceased (been destroyed). Rashi stresses that God’s giving evildoers time and a chance to repent can give the (false) impression that He has foregone that punishment. In the same vein, he thinks the Jews not having ceased reminds them that, as an eternal people, there is always time for God to punish them.
Sotah 9a reads the first half of the verse differently but with a similar thrust. The Talmud reads “I have not changed,” as “I have not repeated,” meaning that God’s general pattern is to punish a nation just once. Each nation, in this view, gets one shot on the world stage, where it lasts until its sins become intolerable, and is then punished and removed from the scene.
In that reading, the Jews’ being punished more frequently but in smaller increments, enhances their role as witnesses to God’s rule. Punishing a nation once does not educate; our punishment, painful as it is, allows God’s Hand to peek through the veil of His Hiddenness. In all of this, we see that our sacrifices are intended to make a point to the world, whereas Noah’s were for himself alone. It is our standard to which we are trying to return.
Much Ado About Tithing
That mission explains why God next complains about the Jews’ having cheated through their tithes (calling it stealing from God). The verb stealing is strange, since God does not have or care about property. Heightening the mystery, the verse promises all sorts of blessings to those who tithe properly; Taanit 9a reads the verse as literally allowing a person to test God on whether tithing will enrich that person.
The answer lies in our theme, seeing God’s affect on the world. Priests and Levites are meant to represent God (so that a gift to them is a gift to God; a failure to give is a theft from God). Those who refuse to tithe lessen their own and others’ ability to recognize this aspect of these people, and by extension, lessen the belief in God.
If You Won’t See God, Won’t See Value in Serving God, Either
In verse 13, God complains about their saying that they see no value in serving God, a conclusion they reached because they don’t see themselves being rewarded for doing what God wants. Indeed, in their view, the evildoers and those who test God have more success.
This claim assumes we can perceive the sum total of God’s effect on the world and reaction to human actions. This is not only an error, it ignores Malachi’s point, that the Jews’ job was to bear witness to the active Presence of God even though he is not perceptibly manifest. God’s promise, in the rest of the section, is that that lesson will one day become absolutely clear to all, that people will understand the difference between those who serve God and those who do not, the righteous and the evil.
The Coming of Elijah
The last three verses of the haftarah are each famous, but much is missed by not knowing them in context. The prophet calls for us to remember Moses’ Torah, commanded at Sinai, then announces that God will send Elijah before the coming of God’s great and awesome Day, and says that Elijah will return the hearts of father to sons and sons to their fathers, lest God come and smite the land to the point of eradication.
Remembering Torah is apple-pie for a prophet, but here it plays a more significant role. The Laws of Moses help us represent God, as members of a nation that asserts His continuing Presence in the world.
The role of Elijah as a precursor of Messiah also emphasizes the issue of making God manifest in the world. There is nothing intuitively obvious about the need for a harbinger of the Messiah--what would be lacking if Messiah came without Elijah? The answer seems to be (and, incidentally, Nachmanides says this in regard to prophets’ predictions generally) that laying prophetic groundwork for an Arrival will insure that that Arrival will come with even broader recognition of God and Providence in the world.
Which now, of course, connects the haftarah to Passover. It is not just that on Passover we were redeemed and in a future Nisan will be again; it is that the original redemption consisted of God proving to the Egyptians He can achieve a desired result by affecting the world physically, metaphysically, naturally or supernaturally. At the future redemption, we hope, the Jewish people will have made that point clear to the world. If they haven’t, Elijah will fill in, so that Messiah’s success will be eased and the import of his activities will be that much clearer.
As with other haftarot, I understand Malachi as reminding us we have a role to play, that it is our task to make Elijah’s job as minimal as possible. The more we achieve, the less of a revelation his coming will be. While he will necessarily have some work to do, each piece we take care of is a success of ours, each piece we leave for him a failure.