Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the last Shabbat before the beginning of Pesach. One of the explanations I’ve heard for why this day is called the Great Shabbat is that in the past it was customary for the people to ask the rabbi all their last-minute questions concerning the halachah for the upcoming holiday. I think most people would agree that Passover is one of the more complicated Jewish festivals to observe, and it makes sense to me to imagine a kind of informal Q-and-A session very similar to our discussions here in shul the past several weeks, with the rabbi explaining the finer points of kashrut to a community of people happy for the shabbos break in the long and hectic process of eliminating every last trace of hametz from the house. Unfortunately, I’m barely qualified to answer questions about my own kitchen, let alone anyone else’s, but I thought it would be nice to commemorate the day by taking a look at the special haftarah we read for Shabbat HaGadol.
There’s a strange dynamic that plays out in the section of Malachi that makes up this passage. The prophet’s theme is the coming of the Messianic era, envisioned here as God’s return to His Temple. Malachi doesn’t see this powerfully redemptive event as something gradual or subtle, the slow fade of night’s giving way to the light of dawn. On the contrary, as it says in a passage a little before the beginning of our haftarah, “the Lord whom you seek shall come to His Temple suddenly.” (Mal. 3:1) A frantic energy pervades this text, a sense of great, world-shattering change just around the corner, not yet here but already filling our ears with the echoes of its impending arrival, causing the wicked to tremble and the righteous to rejoice. “For lo!” says Malachi, “That day is at hand, burning like an oven.” (Mal. 3:19)
And yet, when I read this passage I detect a certain tension in the prophet’s words. He seems unable to resolve the question of how this day is to come about. On the one hand, God’s sudden arrival is treated as something fixed and inevitable, seeming to arrive out of nowhere like a whirlwind or a flood, sweeping everyone and everything along in its inexorable path. But inserted into the midst of this powerful language of upheaval and reversal, of God stepping forward to act as an accuser against those who have subverted the moral order of society, there seems to be a note of pleading, a sense in which God is virtually begging the people to return to Him. “You have been suffering under a curse, yet you go on defrauding Me–the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, and let there be food in My house, and thus put Me to the test–said the Lord of Hosts. I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings on you…” (Mal. 3:9-10)
This sense of pleading, of God’s unfulfilled desire for the repentance of His people, inserts an element of conditionality that seems to contradict the sense of inevitability that otherwise pervades this passage. These two conflicting visions of the coming of God and the establishment of the Messianic Age–the overwhelming flood on the one hand, the uncertain event balanced tentatively on the knife edge of the people’s repentance on the other–form a counterpoint to each other, a question that rings unspoken throughout the text: Is the world to be repaired through a unilateral act of God or through the repentance and patient effort of humanity?
Malachi never explicitly answers this question and the tension it creates is never fully resolved, even by the later rabbis, who could not agree on whether the coming of the Moshiach was something we could bring closer through repentance and good deeds or whether it was a fixed event the time of which is established by God and which nothing we say or do can alter. In the end, Malachi leaves the matter thus:
“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” (Malachi 3:23-24)
One thing I note about this passage is that the coming of the day of the LORD does not seem to be reliant on any particular change of heart in Israel. It isn’t as if Israel finally shapes up and God returns. On the contrary, when the day arrives it requires Elijah’s preparatory work simply to make sure that Hashem’s presence doesn’t utterly destroy the land. And yet, this process of social reconciliation at the most basic and intimate level is something that evidently must take place before God can return. This seems to hint at a particular attitude toward sin and transgression, namely that the prophet (and by extension God) understands that transgression is going to be a part of life, the cost of the divine coming into relationship with flawed, limited humanity.
To clarify what I mean, let’s take a look at a passage from today’s Torah portion, where it talks about the ritual the priest must undertake on Yom Kippur to cleanse the people of their sins:
“Thus he [i.e. the priest] shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the tent of meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their umcleanness.” (Leviticus 16:16)
The word that’s suspiciously absent from this passage is “if.” The possibility that there may not be any transgression to purge is not even entertained. One might accuse the author of being a bit uncharitable. In fact, this is evidence of the kind of understanding to be found only in the relationship between parents and their children and God and His people. God is recognizing the fact that the establishment of a relationship between Him and us inevitably implies the breakdown of this selfsame relationship, and rather than taking this as reason to simply give up on the whole thing before it has begun, God is taking this fact into account by building the mechanism for repairing the relationship into the terms of the relationship itself.
In Rabbi Sloveitchick’s book Halakhic Man, he argues against the mystical idea that the holy is something separate from the world, separate from experience. On the contrary, he says, Judaism teaches us that the holy is a basic category of experience in the world as we experience it. In other words, God’s natural home is among us, and the notion of His dwelling on some lofty, transcendent plane utterly separate from the world in which we live is indicative, not of the natural state of things, but of a profound breach in the way the world is supposed to work. God’s yearning to be with us is at least powerful enough that He is willing to look past the inevitable breach toward the possibility of repair. This awareness of the inherent limitations of a relationship between humanity and the divine is present as well in the concluding passage of Malachi.
This sense of God’s constant yearning to be closer to us, and willingness to tilt the balance in favor of reconciliation between us and Him, is something I’d like to carry with me as we enter into the festival celebrating the most profoundly redemptive event in our people’s history. With this sense in mind, the intensity and violence of Malachi’s vision of the God’s return can be seen not as something unnerving, but as a powerful expression of God’s desire for our participation in the repair of the world. A desire strong enough to free a people of slaves from the clutches of Egypt thousands of years ago must surely have echoes strong enough to inspire us to devote ourselves to creating the conditions for similar redemptive events in our own time.