What Are Leaders For?

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Haftarat Tol’dot, Malachi 1:1–2:7

Rabbi Russ Resnik


We’ve just come through a grueling, costly, and often bitter electoral process. We’ve chosen our leaders, or men and women that we hope will be leaders, and this week’s haftarah provides a reminder of what leaders are chosen for. It begins with a stark contrast between two ancient leaders, Esau and Jacob: “I loved Jacob and Esau I hated” (Mal 1:2–3).

This verse inspires some rough treatment of Esau in the rabbinic writings, which sometimes picture him as the embodiment of opposition to God, or at least of major cluelessness about what matters to God. The nation that he fathered, Edom, is an implacable enemy of Israel, as the Artscroll Chumash notes:   

Because of this hatred [of Esau], the prophet states that Edom, the nation that stems from Esau, will not prosper eternally; that it is doomed to destruction, as indeed the evil that is incarnated in Edom will ultimately be destroyed. It will take time. The Roman Empire that brought about the current exile and most of the powers that have persecuted Israel during its long, long duration are regarded by the Rabbinic tradition as descendants—spiritual, if not direct—of Edom. Like most prophecies, we do not know when this one will be fulfilled; we only know that it will.  

The Torah is more nuanced in its portrayal of Esau. Yes, when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of “red stuff”, the moral is clear: Thus Esau despised his birthright (Gen 25:34). But one of the most poignant scenes in Genesis comes a little later, when Jacob and his mother Rebekah succeed in diverting Isaac’s paternal blessing from Esau to Jacob. Esau realizes what’s happened and cries out, “Do you just have one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept (Gen 27:38). And twenty years later, when Jacob returns from his long exile, Esau is ready to meet him with his own private militia, but turns out to be warm, generous, and welcoming. When Esau first saw the returning Jacob, he “ran to meet him, hugged him, fell on his neck and kissed him—and they wept” (Gen 33:4). 

Esau isn’t the chosen one, but he’s pictured in Genesis as a real human being, impulsive, foolish, but also capable of loyalty and deep attachment to his father Isaac. It’s from the Prophets that the rabbinic sages draw a much harsher picture of Esau, summarized in the starkest of verses: “I loved Jacob and Esau I hated.” 

In rabbinic thought, this distinction represents one of the great divides of human history, “perhaps the major turning point in the history of the world”—as the Artscroll Chumash puts it—“the choice of Jacob over Esau to receive the Torah and bear the Patriarchal legacy.” As followers of Yeshua we can agree about the importance of this choice, because it advances God’s purpose of blessing all the nations through Abraham and his seed—ultimately Messiah Yeshua and those who seek to walk in his ways.  

But after Malachi makes it clear that Israel is chosen and Esau is not, he immediately shifts his attention—and prophetic critique—on to Israel. Indeed, his whole point of opening with Esau isn’t to tear Esau down, but to portray the unique love that Hashem has for Jacob/Israel. In light of this love, Israel deserves a stern rebuke for its failure to respond. Israel is represented by the priests or kohanim—the chosen ones among the chosen ones—and Hashem addresses them: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. So if I am Father, where is My honor? If I am Master, where is My reverence?”—says Adonai-Tzva’ot—“you, kohanim who despise My Name!” (Mal 1:6). The priests despise the Lord by bringing defective and inferior sacrifices. After outlining this charge, the Lord describes the true calling of a priest in words that conclude our haftarah portion:  

My covenant was with Levi for life and shalom,
and I gave them to him for reverence.
So he revered Me, and he was awestruck by My Name.
Instruction of truth was in his mouth.
Injustice was not found on his lips.
In shalom and uprightness he walked with Me,
and he turned many from iniquity.
For a kohen’s lips should guard knowledge,
and instruction [Torah] must be sought from his mouth.
For he is a messenger of Adonai-Tzva’ot. (Mal 2:5–7) 

The recent election has stirred up a lot of complaints—necessary in my view—about the inflammatory and polarizing rhetoric on both sides. No one who believes in Scripture should minimize the power and impact of words, or excuse words that are destructive, disrespectful, or patently untrue. So, what are leaders for? Great leaders speak words that inspire and instruct, and bring out the best in those they lead. And all of us, leaders or not, can work on bringing out the best in ourselves and others through positive, truthful, peace-seeking speech.

Perhaps this is a further distinction between Jacob and Esau. Esau’s words—even those that seem warm and generous—are impulsive and not to be trusted. To Jacob, and the priestly line that represents him, belong the assignment to “guard knowledge” so that from him people can seek Torah—instruction, solid truth, wisdom for life. This is Jacob’s assignment, and also ours as those who claim to be his chosen descendants.

All Scripture references are Tree of Life Version (TLV).

Russ Resnik