Malachi was the last of all the prophets. His short book consists of three chapters, the last of which is the haphtarah for Shabbat HaGadol. It is unclear if Malachi is the actual name of a prophet or a title, meaning “My [i.e. God’s] messenger”. There are various opinions about this in the Talmud (Megillah 15a). Rav Nachman is of the opinion that Malachi is Mordechai of the Purim story. He was given the title “my messenger” because he was appointed as the second-in-command to the king at the end of the Scroll of Esther. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha believes that Malachi is in fact Ezra, the famous leader who led a large group of Exiles from Babylon to Israel in the early days of the Second Temple and who initiated a religious renaissance. There is also an opinion that Malachi was his real name and he is neither Mordechai nor Ezra.  Whatever the case, he was active in the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia and his colleagues were Daniel, Chaggai and Zechariah. 

Malachi’s prophecy deals with a number of themes. He begins by reminding the Jewish people how much God loves them and how He selected their forefather Jacob over Esau, his older brother. He then turns his attention to the Cohanim in the Temple and castigates them for their disgraceful attitude towards the sacrificial service. They would bring offerings from sick, lame and stolen animals. The Cohanim were meant to be role models and teachers and they were derelict in their duty. He contrasts their behaviour with that of Aharon, the first Cohen Gadol, about whom he says (2:6), “The Torah of truth was in his mouth and injustice was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and honesty, and he returned many from iniquity.” The prophet then addressees the men of Judah and rebukes them for intermarrying and abandoning their Jewish wives. The book of Ezra also dwells on this topic, pointing out that many of the exiles who returned from Babylon to the Land of Israel married non-Jewish women.

Malachi’s final prophecy is a response to the people’s frustrations about what they perceived as an absence of Divine justice. He describes the great judgment that will take place in the future. He urges the nation to give their tithes and gifts to the Cohanim and Leviim and assures them that God will reward them for doing so. His closing words contain both rebuke and encouragement in preparation for the “coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord” that will arrive at the End of Days. It is from this verse (3:23) that Shabbat Hagadol (the Great Shabbat) derives its name.

Let us analyse Malachi’s closing words – the last prophetic message uttered to the Jewish people – in light of current events: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, and all the criminals and all the doers of wickedness will be straw; the day that is coming will burn them, said the Lord of Hosts, so that it will not leave of them root or branch. But the sun of righteousness will shine for those who fear My name, with healing in its rays and you will emerge and grow fat like fattened calves. You will crush the wicked for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day I am preparing, said the Lord of hosts.” The Jewish people have a history of oppression and persecution unlike any other nation. We have seen tyrants and despots rule over us with impunity. For many, the suffering was unbearable and they lost faith in redemption or in God Himself. Here the prophet assures them that the wicked will receive their come-uppance. The time of evil will come to an end and the soothing rays of righteousness will shine. These words have served as a source of comfort and consolation to Jews throughout the millennia. If ever there was a time that Divine justice was required, it is now. The seventh of October was the catalyst for a multi-front war on the Jewish people: Hamas in the south Hamas; Hezbollah in the north; on university campuses; city streets; social media and now, a direct missile attack from Iran. To the enemies of the Jewish people, Malachi says, “the day is coming, burning like a furnace, and all the criminals and all the doers of wickedness will be straw!” May it be soon in our days!

The prophet then says to the Jewish people, “Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant, which I commanded him at Horeb [Sinai] for all of Israel, statutes and ordinances.” This is a very poignant message.  Malachi, in effect, was telling his audience, “I am the last of the prophets. Once I am gone, there will be no one with whom God speaks directly. Perhaps you may be wondering how you will manage without prophets and direction from God? There is nothing to fear. All you need do is remember the Torah and observe its laws. There you will find all the answers you need to all of life’s problems.” Malachi’s words were paraphrased many generations later by the Mishnaic sage, Ben Bag (Avot 5:26), “Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. Reflect on it, grow old and gray in it and do not stir from it, for there is no better portion for you than this.”

Malachi then concludes, “Behold, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. He will return the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with utter destructions.” Elijah will herald the final redemption in the days of the Messiah. In the book of Kings, Elijah is portrayed as a zealous character, a warrior against idolatry. In the end, he cannot tolerate the wickedness of his generation. But here we see him in a different, conciliatory role. Elijah will bring about a great reconciliation between the generations.  Sometimes parents are religiously observant but not their children and sometimes it is the other way round.  Elijah will unite families through their shared observance of Torah and mitzvoth. He will not condemn the Jewish people, as he did in Biblical times. Rather, he will lead them back to God. In the words of the Mishna (Eduyot 8:7), “Rabbi Yehoshua said: I have received a tradition from Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and his teacher [heard it] from his teacher, as a halakha [given] to Moshe from Sinai, that Elijah will not come to pronounce unclean or to pronounce clean, to put away or to bring near, but to put away those brought near by force and to bring near those put away by force. The family of Beth Tzriphah was on the other side of the Jordan and Ben Zion put it away by force; and yet another family was there, and Ben Zion brought it near by force. It is such as these that Elijah will come to pronounce unclean or to pronounce clean, to put away or to bring near. Rabbi Yehuda says: to bring near, but not to put away. Rabbi Shimon says: to conciliate disputes. And the Sages say: neither to put away nor to bring near, but to make peace in the world, for it is said, ‘Behold I send to you Elijah the prophet’, etc., ‘and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers’”.

In the words of the special prayer added to the bentsching at a brit milah: “The Compassionate One! May He send us the righteous Cohen [Elijah] who was taken into hiding, until His throne is established bright as sun and diamond, he who covered his face with his cloak and enwrapped himself, My covenant was with him for life and peace!”

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   Rabbi Liebenberg

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