Some years back, in a musing entitled Dysfunction Junction I wrote about these words for the prophet Malachi which are near the end of the haftarah reading for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover:
וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב־אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל־אֲבוֹתָם פֶּן־אָבוֹא וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת־הָאָרֶץ חֵֽרֶם׃
3:24 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
Pesach is almost here. Soon many of us will gather with our families for a Seder. While this can be a most positive and loving experience for some, let's face it--for many, it will be yet another dysfunctional family get-together. Tensions. Bickering. Fighting. Frustrations.
When faced with such a situation, we might do well to recall the words of Malachi. They say that any one of us could be moshiach. Yet another among many good reasons to treat each other will respect and honor at all times. Maybe, when confronted with our alienated parents, or our alienated children, we can try to act as we are told Eliyahu HaNavi will act, and seek to bring about reconciliation. Try to turn the hearts of parents to children, and children to parents. Who knows. Maybe Moshiach will come. And even if the messiah may tarry, we can continue to eagerly await the coming of the messiah every day.
At the time, I was writing from the perspective of only one possible translation of the Hebrew text. However, the Hebrew is somewhat ambiguous largely depending on how one chooses to translate the Hebrew preposition “al."
As Michael Fishbane points out in the JPS Haftarah Commentary, how one chooses to translate “al" subtly changes the meaning of the verse. It could mean that reconciliation between parents and children will hold off G"d's stern judgment, or it could mean that parents and children together will be returned to a right relationship with G"d.
Why does this matter? I have some thoughts on this. Over the millennia, Jewish and Christian thought on the time of judgment/end times or whatever you choose to call it have diverged. Or so we believe. Non-Christians often have a very over-simplified understanding of Christian theology, that can be summed up in “believe in Christ and all is forgiven." While I admit this is a gross over-simplification, there is a grain of truth to this understanding. I would link this understanding to the second way of looking at Malacha 3:24 – that parents and children will be redeemed together.
Often seeking to distance our philosophies from Christianity, we Jews often choose subtle differences in translation and understanding. Understanding that the reconciliation of parents and children is a necessary precursor to the coming of olam haba, the world yet to come has become, over time, a very Jewish way of looking at the world. It is not enough to profess a belief in a specific manifestation of the Deity. Rightful action on the part of human beings is not just the right thing to do, it is necessary to bring about the coming of olam haba. Reconciliation between parents and children is necessary for there to be reconciliation between the people and G"d.
But wait-there's a problem here. I've conveniently taken verse 3:24 by itself without referencing the context-in particular the preceding verse:
הִנֵּה אָֽנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם יְהוָה הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃
3:23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the L"rd.
If you go back and look at the translation of 3:24 at the beginning, you'll notice it begins with the word He. That's not the JPS translation. They render it as:
3:24 And he will reconcile parents with children and children with parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike down the whole land with utter destruction
Notice the “he" uses a lower case h. This clearly indicates the JPS translators want to be sure that everyone understands that the “he" was Elijah, and not “He" meaning G"d. The translation I used is a little more ambiguous.
So my idea that the voluntary and deliberate reconciliation of parents and children is necessary now seems suspect. After all, it is Elijah who is bringing this about. Of course, this all depends on how you view Elijah. Is Elijah a surrogate for G"d with some limited powers to bring about this reconciliation, or is Elijah simply a prophet who, with words and exhortations, will bring about this parent-child reconciliation and thus forestall G"d's wrath?
I'd posit that a more typical modern liberal Jewish understanding would be the latter. This still requires human beings to do the actual reconciling. Neither G"d nor Elijah will magically cause parents and children to reconcile. There's nothing passive here. It must still be our choice. G"d wants us to make that choice, the right choice, and sends us Elijah to guide and goad us into the righteous choice, but it remains our choice nevertheless.
Oh, how much easier it might to believe that this reconciliation between parents and children, which will lead to the ultimate reconciliation, between people and G"d, will come about through G"d's effort. To believe that parents and children together will be reconciled to each other and to G"d with little effort on their part, simply through G"d's grace. Yes, that's a nice G"d to believe it, but it leaves us off the hook. This I do not, can not believe.
G"d may not have yet sent us Elijah, yet my faith tells me to not wait, to begin the process of reconciliation now, each and every day. Certainly at Passover and other stressful times spent with family.
If this haftarah, if our Torah, if all of Judaism teaches me nothing else, it teaches me to not sit around and wait for goodness and righteousness to happen. The rabbis had this much right – if we work each and every day doing righteous things, we can maybe hasten the coming of moshiakh, or, if you choose, the messianic age, the olam haba. One hundred blessings every day. Not standing idly by while neighbors bleed. Reconciling with parents and children. 613 and more ways to do the right thing.
As I wrote in closing Dysfunction Junction:
Believe with perfect faith that you can turn the hearts of parents to children and children to parents. And then labor to make it so.
Have a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover.
Adrian ©2012, portions ©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
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