This week’s Torah portion prohibits the offering of blemished animals as sacrifices to God:
“You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep that has any defect of a serious kind, for that is abhorrent to the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 17:1)
While this verse apparently discusses animals with physical imperfections, in a related passage the prophet Malakhi (1:13) extends the prohibition to stolen animals:
“‘You bring the stolen, the lame, and the sick (animals), and offer such as an oblation. Will I accept it from you?’ said the Lord.”
Though at first glance these three types – the stolen, lame, and sick – constitute distinct categories, the juxtaposition of the latter two with the stolen might imply that all three share a common core flaw. The reader is left to wonder, however: What is that commonality? What does Malakhi mean to teach by grouping these three categories together?
There are at least two possible approaches to decoding this juxtaposition. On the one hand, one might point out that from the perspective of the owner, the temptations to offer these animals as sacrifices are the same. The lame and sick animals are deficient anyway, and are inefficient to maintain monetarily; and the stolen animal was acquired without payment (and if discovered, would have to be returned). As such, there is no sacrifice to speak of here, as they cost the owner nothing. Such a sacrifice is inadmissible as such; God has no more use of such things than the person.
One could also suggest an alternate interpretation. Given the backdrop of Deuteronomy, it is arguable that Malakhi assumes that his readers take for granted that the physically blemished animals are disqualified (though Malakhi’s audience apparently ignored that prohibition). Indeed, earlier in the chapter (verse 8), the physically blemished animals are mentioned alone (compare Isaiah 61:8). The innovation of the text in verse 13 is to frame the stolen sacrifice as blemished, just like the lame and the sick. The verse teaches that while to our pedestrian eyes there is a clear distinction between physical blemishes and moral disqualifications, from the divine perspective they are essentially identical. It is as if the quality of being stolen looks to God just like a physical, tangible blemish, and blemished sacrifices are unfit for the altar.
In closing, it is noteworthy that the talmudic sage Rabbi Yohanan categorizes the attempt to offer a stolen sacrifice as a “mitzvah haba’ah ba’aveirah,” (a commandment brought about through a sin), and indeed sources the existence of this category to our verse from Malakhi. This principle disqualifies mitzvot achieved via a violation, such as offering a stolen sacrifice or shaking a stolen lulav. It is not accidental that the Talmud chooses sacrifice as its paradigmatic mitzvah and theft as its paradigmatic sin, for in essence they reflect directly opposite orientations to ownership.
One who sacrifices essentially acknowledges that in truth, she owns nothing; conversely, one who steals essentially demonstrates the belief that everything is his, or at least his for the taking. Malakhi thus teaches that God desires the former orientation and despises the latter.
In short, therefore, reading Malakhi in light of the basic halakhah found in Parashat Shoftim yields some simple yet profound teachings on the nature of sacrifice and the interplay of law and ethics in the Jewish tradition.