Toldot: My Name is Great Among the Nations

Toldot: My Name is Great Among the Nations

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the
Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

The title is taken from the week’s Haftara which, like the sidra is concerned with the struggle between Jacob and Esau. There are two verses at its beginning alluding to this subject which presents a difficulty:

Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? Said the Lord; yet I loved Jacob; but Esau I hated, and made his mountains a desolation, and gave his heritage to the jackals of the wilderness. (Malachi 1:2-3)

Rashi comments:

“He loved Jacob” to give him a pleasant land, “the goodliest heritage of the nations” (after Jeremiah 3:19), a land to which all the hosts of nations assembled. “But Esau I hated” – to drive him to the land of Seir from before Jacob his brother…

As the verse emphasizes, their origins and pedigree were no different. Why then, in one case did God hate and, in the other, love? Was partiality involved? Yet this same prophet who makes this apparent discrimination between the two brothers proceeds in verse 11 to strike a wholly different and unusual note:

For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, My name is great among the nations; and in every place offerings are presented to My name, even pure oblations; For My name is great among the nations, saith the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 1:11)

The above passage is a unique example in Scripture of generous praise accorded to all mankind, with regard to their acknowledgment of their Creator. Rashi cites two explanations of the passage both echoing the words of our sages.

“My name is great among the nations” – that they call him, the God of gods. Even he who worships idols knows that there is a God over all of them and in every place even the gentiles offer willingly to My name. Our Rabbis explained that the passage refers to the Torah scholars who are engaged in the study of the divine service in every place. Similarly, they interpret that all the prayers of Israel that they pray in every place are to me like a pure oblation. The Targum Jonathan gave a similar explanation: “Wherever you do My will, I accept your prayers and my great name is hallowed through you, and your prayers are like a pure oblation before me.” The passage should thus read: Why do you profane My name; surely it is great among the nations and My love and affection is for you; for wherever you pray to Me even in the Exile your offerings are presented to My name, and are a pure oblation before Me, since through you My name is great among the nations.

Two contrasting explanations are cited by Rashi in the name of the Sages. Is His name great among the nations because even the gentiles offer up to His name or is the reference to the Jewish people who are scattered among the nations? Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed enlarges on this subject:

You know that no idolator worships his idol in the conviction that there is no other god beside. No man either in the past or future imagines that the image he made of metal, stone or wood, actually created the heaven and earth and governs them. But they serve it as a symbol mediating between them and the Divine, as the prophet explained when he said “Who would not fear Thee, King of the nations …” and: “and in every place offerings are presented to My name, for My name is great among the nations” alluding to the Prime Cause as far as they are concerned. We have already explained this in our great compilation. No Torah authority of ours will dispute this fact.

Judah Even Shemuel explains the above passage in his commentary (Tel Aviv 1935) as follows:

Here Rambam unfolds for us the chapter of idolatry and shows it in a new light. It is not a worship of wood and stone but an outlook on the world concerned with communing with the media that stands between us and God; but it is a mistaken outlook and since it relates to the divine it constitutes a very serious and harmful mistake. Every idolator knows there is only One God in the universe. If he fails to direct his worship to Him, this is only because he sees God as too far above him, too transcendent, whereas the other god is nearer to him But he actually only worships the latter symbolically. The truth is that idolators do not worship the image except insofar far as it serves as a symbol of mediator between man and God. The Baal and Ashtoreth, for instance, serve as symbols of fertility–the angel standing between God and the world presiding over fertility.

“And in every place offerings are presented to My name” alluding to the Prime Cause as far as they are concerned. Even the idolators accept God as the Prime Cause…The acknowledgment of God is not the heritage of the children of Israel only, but all mankind have attained it because they are human. It is part of their natural perception to acknowledge the Divine and a realization of the unity of the source of the whole universe is implicit in their make-up. Rambam’s reference to his “great compilation” alludes to chapter one of the laws of idolatry on the Code. “No Torah authority of ours will dispute this fact.” – We do not imagine that only we have achieved a recognition of the existence of God and we do not say that members of other faiths repudiate the existence of God and we do not say that members of other faiths repudiate the existence of God.

The views of Ramban expressed here harmonize with those of our sages sited by Rashi in his first explanation. Ibn Gabirol has expressed these sentiments in his inimitable poetic form in his Keter Malchut:

Thou art the God of Gods and all creatures pay homage to Thee and every created thing has been obliged to serve Thee with the honour due to Thy name.

Thou art God and all creatures are Thy servants and serve Thee and Thy glory suffers no diminution on account of those who serve others beside Thee, since the intention of all of them is to achieve communion with Thee.

What connection has the interpretation we have given for our passage from Malachi with the context? Rashi in his first explanation adheres to the plain sense of Scripture. The prophet is rebuking Israel. God has no delight in their worship if they serve him in such a manner that his name is profaned among the nations. God has other worshippers beside Israel; for all that is created He created for His glory and even they intend to pay homage to him. Abarbanel elaborates on this theme:

You should have learnt from the ways of the nations. Though they have not been vouchsafed the light of the Torah … they magnify and exalt Him and perform the most pure sacrifice that they themselves are capable of doing according to their lights.

Let us now revert to our first question: Why did God then hate Esau? Not because He displayed partiality but because Esau deliberately chose a course of wickedness. Radak explains:

For their wickedness had become exceeding great before the Lord, in that they dealt treacherously with the sons of Jacob whereas God had commanded Israel, “Thou shall not abominate an Edomite for he is thy brother.” But they dealt evilly with them with the maximum of their spite and rejoiced in their destruction and exile.

The text therefore says of their land that:

They shall be called the border of wickedness. (Malachi 1:4)