This week’s Haftorah warns the Jewish people to maintain a proper relationship with Hashem. Although we enjoy a special closeness with Him, we are reminded never to take advantage of it. The prophet Malachi addresses the Jewish people shortly after their return from the Babylonian exile and admonishes them for abusing their privilege of sacrificing in the Temple. Hashem says, “I love you…but if I am your father, where is My honor? The kohanim disgrace My name by referring to My altar with disrespect.” Rashi explains that the kohanim failed to appreciate the privilege of sacrificing in Hashem’s sanctuary. The Jews had finally merited their return to Hashem and His land but this favor was soon forgotten. They became so accustomed to the Temple service that they began relating to sacrificial portions as if they were ordinary meals. If small portions were distributed due to he abundance of kohanim the response of the kohanim was one of great disrespect. Even the actual sacrifices were treated lightly and periodically they would offer lame or sick animals on Hashem’s altar, demonstrating great insensitivity towards their sacred privilege.
The prophet Malachi reminds them of the illustrious era which preceded them. The kohanim in earlier generations had the proper attitude towards the service of Hashem and conducted themselves with true reverence. Hashem says about them, “My treaty, life and peace was with him, and I gave him (reason for) reverence and he revered Me. And before My name he was humbled.” These passages refer to Aharon, the earliest kohain to serve in the Sanctuary. They speak of a man so sacred that he was granted permission to enter the Holy of Holies. And yet he always maintained a true sense of humility and displayed proper reverence whenever he entered Hashem’s private quarters. The Gaon of Vilna reveals to us that Aharon’s relationship was so unique that he was actually permitted to enter the Holy of Holies throughout the entire year, given certain sacrificial conditions. This special closeness never affected Aharon Hakohain and he never became overly comfortable with Hashem and always maintained the proper reverence.
Interestingly, Malachi also draws our attention to the stark contrast between our relationship with Hashem and that of the nations of the world. The non-Jews’ relationship with Hashem is expressed as one of respect and reverence. Malachi says, “For from the east to the west My (Hashem’s) name is exalted amongst the nations….But you (the Jewish people) profane it by saying that the altar of Hashem is a disgrace.”
The Radak explains that all the nations recognize Hashem, and those who worship idols nonetheless respectfully call Him the G-d of the gods. They afford Hashem the highest title and honor and never disgrace Him. Because they direct their energies towards strange powers and false deities, and do not approach Hashem directly, this relationship results in a sincere respect and reverence for Hashem and allows Hashem to remain exalted in their eyes. Their relationship with Him is a distant one which leaves no room for disgrace. The Jewish people, on the other hand, enjoy a very close relationship with Hashem, one which is often taken for granted. We are constantly directing ourselves to Hashem in prayer and in service and feel very comfortable with Him. This special relationship can lead, at times, to overstepping our bounds and failing to show Him proper respect.
This vast difference in approaches towards respect of Hashem has its origins in the early relationships of Yaakov and Eisav with their father. The Midrash (Breishis Rabba 65:12) quotes the great Tanna, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel saying that he never served his father with nearly the same degree of respect that Eisav served his father Yitzchok. Rabban Shimon says, “For when Eisav did even menial household chores for his father he wore his kingly robes, but I perform these chores in my ordinary garments.” This demonstrates Eisav’s tremendous sense of respect for his father. However, we find that this same sense of respect produced a cold and distant relationship with his father. The Torah tells us (27:31) that when Eisav addressed his father he said, “Let my father rise and eat from the provisions of his son.” He always spoke to his father in a cold but respectful third person. Yaakov, on the other hand is not cited to have served his father in such an extraordinary manner. Yet, even when impersonating Eisav, Yaakov couldn’t help but speak to his father in his warm and loving tone (see R’ Avrohom ben HaRambam 27:19) This demonstrates that the Jewish understanding of respect and honor is one of warmth and closeness, rather than coldness and distance. Yaakov may never reach the ultimate levels of reverence which Eisav displayed. However, Yaakov’s relationship will always be one of love and warmth, one of inner feelings and true appreciation.
In this context, the prophet Malachi reminds us that Hashem truly loves us like a father does his son. But if this is to be the relationship, we should please not abuse it. Rather, we must remember to maintain the proper balance, a relationship of warmth and love and yet one of respect and reverence.