There’s an old joke I learned when I was living in the Midwest. It’s partly a visual, so I’ll do my best to describe it.
“Wanna know why farmers have such smelly thumbs?”
[without waiting for a response, hooking my thumbs under my armpits in imitation of running them under a pair of suspenders/braces/overall straps]“ Well, I’ll tell ya.”
It’s not really that funny, and in todays world could even be seen as bullying or a micro-aggression. But I learned it from a farmer, so I figure maybe it’s a form of self-deprecating humor. Doesn’t make it right for me, a non-farmer, to tell it, I suppose, but I use it here merely to set the stage for the ensuing commentary.
The opening chapter of this last book of a (last?) prophet, Malachi, from which the haftarah for parashat Toldot is taken, repeatedly uses a rhetorical device this is similar in nature to this joke. It’s called a hypophora. A hypophora is slightly different from a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is not answered as one is not expected (or the answer is assumed to be obvious by the asker.) In a hypophora, a question is asked and then immediately answered by the asker. The author(s) of Malachi use the hypophora as a sort of didactic teaching device.
אָהַבְתִּי אֶתְכֶם אָמַר יְהֹוָה וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמָּה אֲהַבְתָּנוּ הֲלוֹא־אָח עֵשָׂו לְיַֽעֲקֹב נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה וָֽאֹהַב אֶֽת־יַֽעֲקֹֽב: ג וְאֶת־עֵשָׂו שָׂנֵאתִי וָאָשִׂים אֶת־הָרָיו שְׁמָמָה וְאֶת־נַֽחֲלָתוֹ לְתַנּוֹת מִדְבָּֽר
I have loved you, says the Eternal One.
But you say: How have You shown Your love for us?
Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Eternal One
But I have loved Jacob
and hated Esau, making his hills a desolation
giving his heritage to jackals
The rhetorical technique is interesting, but even more so, the content. G”d has us asking how G”d has shown love for us! The nerve!
We could also go off an another long tangent here, noting how Esau how now become “hated.” I’m not sure of the term for this, or if there even is one, but it’s almost as if an etiology is eisegeted into the Torah’s telling of the story of Jacob and Esau by Malachi. (Exegisis is the process of drawing interpretation from the text. Eisegisis is when we allow our own bias and preconceptions to influence how we interpret the text – outing the interpretation into the text.) There’s no evidence, at least for me, in the text of the Torah, that G”d hated Esau. But from the perspective of the people of Malachi’s time (5th century BCE?) Esau descendants, as the nation of Edom, became hated and despised for their participation in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Anyway, I’ve wandered far enough down this side path.
Only a few verses later we see another example:
בֵּן יְכַבֵּד אָב וְעֶבֶד אֲדֹנָיו וְאִם־אָב אָנִי אַיֵּה כְבוֹדִי וְאִם־אֲדוֹנִים אָנִי אַיֵּה מֽוֹרָאִי אָמַר ׀ יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת לָכֶם הַכֹּֽהֲנִים בּוֹזֵי שְׁמִי וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמֶּה בָזִינוּ אֶת־שְׁמֶֽךָ: מַגִּישִׁים עַל־מִזְבְּחִי לֶחֶם מְגֹאָל וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמֶּה גֵֽאַלְנוּךָ בֶּאֱמָרְכֶם שֻׁלְחַן יְהֹוָה נִבְזֶה הֽוּא
A son should honor his father, and a slave his master. Now if I am a father, where is the honor due Me? And if I am a master, where is the reverence due Me?—said the LORD of Hosts to you, O priests who scorn My name. But you ask, “How have we scorned Your name?” You offer defiled food on My altar. But you ask, “How have we defiled You?”By saying, “The table of the LORD can be treated with scorn.”
Malachi is on a roll here, hypophora after hypophora! While we could politely just say Malachi (well, actually G”d) is being didactic, I see hints of a haughty Deity here. It’s sort of the same reaction I have to the end of Job. It’s a very “pay no attention to the man behind the screen” moment for me. Here (and elsewhere in the prophets) we see the genesis of the “G”d is perfect” fallacy. A perfect G”d is not at all what the Torah displays. The very imperfections of the Deity as portrayed in Torah is what calls so many of us to turn it and turn it.
G”d, through Malachi, goes on to complain about the quality of the sacrifices being offered, suggesting that the people are offering him less than the choicest and purest sacrifices, and suggests there’s a tit for tat. G”d sarcastically says:
וְכִֽי־תַגִּשׁוּן עִוֵּר לִזְבֹּחַ אֵין רָע וְכִי תַגִּישׁוּ פִּסֵּחַ וְחֹלֶה אֵין רָע הַקְרִיבֵהוּ נָא לְפֶחָתֶךָ הֲיִרְצְךָ אוֹ הֲיִשָּׂא פָנֶיךָ אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאֽוֹת
When you present a blind animal for sacrifice—it doesn’t matter! When you present a lame or sick one—it doesn’t matter! Just offer it to your governor: Will he accept you? Will he show you favor?—said the LORD of Hosts.
You want G”d to be gracious and good to you, you ‘d better offer only the highest quality sacrifices! Boy, when G”d says covenant, G”d really does mean covenant (or more realistically, contract.)
Now, this next bit of text is no hypophora (though it is used as justification for the tirade that follows.:)
כִּי מִמִּזְרַח־שֶׁמֶשׁ וְעַד־מְבוֹאוֹ גָּדוֹל שְׁמִי בַּגּוֹיִם וּבְכָל־מָקוֹם מֻקְטָר מֻגָּשׁ לִשְׁמִי וּמִנְחָה טְהוֹרָה כִּֽי־גָדוֹל שְׂמִי בַּגּוֹיִם אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאֽוֹת
For from where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name; for My name is honored among the nations—said the LORD of Hosts.
Scholars have been all over this one. Here, G”d acknowledges that intentional ritual, even to pagan gods, is actually worship of the One G”d, of Ad”nai. (Though it doesn’t say so, the implication is that such worship is not OK for Jews, but that Judaism is not the only viable way to worship G”d. Jewish worship ritual is simply the way commanded for the Jewish people. That’s a pretty big statement. A statement not entirely surprising from a prophet likely observing how Judaism existed in the midst of Persian culture, and how it was being shaped (by some) upon their return from exile
I’ll skip over some verses here, referring you to last year’s musing on this haftarah, reviewing an earlier musing, discussing verse 13. http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com/2015/11/random-musing-before-shabbattoldot.html
The haftarah ends with an excoriation and exhortation to the Levitical priests.Then it calls upon the priests to be truly faithful. There’s probably a whole lot of politics in here, if it was indeed written in the post-exilic period of Ezra and Nehemiah’s efforts. Another side path I won’t trod today.
Here’s the thing about hypophora and even rhetorical questions. A person has to be awfully smug and certain of themselves to use them. You ask why, I’ll tell you why. You ask what you’ve done to displease the Deity, I’ll tell you what you’ve done to displease the Deity. You ask what G”d has done for you, I’ll tell you what G”d has done for you. As well intentioned as the user of such rhetoric may be, it still sticks in my craw, it still makes something inside me automatically want to ask why you think you have all the answers and I don’t.
It’s easier, admittedly, to react negatively when the user of the rhetoric is merely a human being, even if that person is a (self-declared) messenger of G”d. When it comes directly from G”d, it’s not so easy (though perhaps it should be.) In such a quandary, I need only go back to the Torah and read the story of the truly imperfect G”d that is contained within, and I am less wary of impugning G”d’s reputation. I can ask G”d “what favor have you shown me?” I can say to G”d “You haven’t always given us Your best, either!”
Now, before I get too haughty myself, I have a to backtrack a little (get used to that folks, there’s going to be a lot of that in the news for the next four years.) It is a bit immature to counter a criticism with “but you fail to meet that standard, too!” I can and should feel free to take G”d to task, but perhaps before I devote a lot of energy to that crusade, I should put some serious effort into examining my own behavior. Are my offerings to G’’”d, to my family, to those I love, to my friends, to the work that I do and the people I work for or with, to other human beings the best I can give? If the answer is no, I can still forgive myself (and yes, that is made easier if I acknowledge that G”d too sometimes falls short) but I must nevertheless continue to strive to do better. Even if “best” is unachievable, I must continue to strive for it.
Who do I write these musings? I’ll tell you why I write these musings. They are my process for working through my own encounters with the biblical text. Why are you reading this musing? I’ll tell you why you;re reading this musing? I have no idea. Nevertheless, I hope it has raised some questions and thoughts for you.
©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Tol’dot 5776 – Still a Bother
Toldot 5775 – Esau’s Plan
Tol’dot/Makhar Hodesh 5774 – Drops That Sparkle
Tol’dot 5773 – More Teleology
Tol’dot 5771 – Keeping the Bathwater
Toldot 5769 – There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Toldot 5768 – Alternate Histories, Alternate Shmistories
Toldot 5767-They Also Serve…
Toldot 5765-Purposeless Fire
Toledot 5764-What a Bother!
Toledot 5763-Not Sticking in The Knife
Toledot 5762-Winners and Losers
Toledot 5761-Is This All There Is?
Toledot 5758-Like Father, Like Son