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Light from the Sidra

Acharei Mot

Leviticus 16:1-18:30.Haftarah.Ezekial 22:1-19

During the last government’s term of office, so many NHS patients were contracting Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (that’s MRSA to you and me) that the Prime Minister suggested “deep-cleaning” hospitals in order to rid them of the deadly bacteria lurking in their wards. How hospitals would have prevented the recurrence of the flesh-eating MRSA bugs was not explained but the idea of “deep-cleaning hospitals” at least sounded good.

Yom Kippur was Israel’s annual “deep cleaning”. It was  a “de-sinning” of the Tabernacle and the people. Who could tell what sins of ignorance had escaped the notice of pious Israelites, all of which served to compromise the holiness of the nation and to alienate the people from their God.

Aaron the high priest had to atone for himself, for his family, for the priests and the people, and for the tabernacle. On one day each year, the high priest had to enter the holiest site on earth, the place in the tabernacle where heaven and earth met, where ha Melech Olam, the King of the Universe, sat enthroned between the cherubim.

This week’s portion from Leviticus is named Acharei Mot, “after the death” (the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, recounted in chapter 10).

Leviticus 16 begins, then, with a solemn reminder that were the holiest man on earth to put a foot wrong in the observance of the rituals of Yom Kippur, he would die. If that were the case with the High Priest, what was the hope for the average Israelite? Who could possibly stand before the awesome holiness of Yahweh and live? But someone had to do it if the people were to know the presence of God with them; and the Cohen haGadol was the man chosen by God.

The sanctuary required purging from the ritual pollution that had accumulated from both priests and people, and the accumulated sins of the people had to be removed. The most some household cleaning products can guarantee is that they remove 99% of germs but the agent for cleansing the entire nation of Israel of its ritual and moral pollution had to be 100% effective.

The agent was sacrificial blood: “For the life of the flesh—it is in the blood; I (myself) have given it to you upon the slaughter-site, to effect ransom for your lives, for the blood—it effects-ransom for life!” (The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes, Everett Fox).

Once again, we can trace the origins of this particular ritual to Genesis 3:15. Adam’s disobedience plunged the entire cosmos, not just a nation, into chaos, and mankind into a state of sin. Atonement for Adam’s transgression would be accomplished through a battle between the Seed of the woman and the serpent. The conflict would result in the crushing of the serpent’s head but the serpent would nevertheless inject its deadly venom into the heal of the man. The events of Leviticus 16 served as a reminder of that promise (a goat had to be killed to remove the effects of sin) and looked forward symbolically to a time when Israel’s sins would truly be removed as far as the east is from the west (the scapegoat symbolically carried the people’s guilt into the wilderness).

During the Babylonian exile, Daniel and other people of faith prayed facing Jerusalem and the temple, conscious that hope of atonement was there. No sacrifices could be offered in Babylon. Little wonder then that when the exiles returned, before they had set about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem or reconstructing the temple, they offered sacrifices.

Israel has been in exile for the best part of 2,500 years and for the last 2,000 years the people have had no temple and, therefore, no sacrifices. Why do the Jewish people not long, as Daniel did, for the restitution of the sacrificial system? Could it be because they have been lulled into a false sense of security? Could it be that they think sin is not very serious and that ten days of good deeds and a day of fasting can set matters straight with the Almighty?

Our Torah portion screams that sin is serious and that God will punish even inadvertent sins.

The 53rd chapter of Isaiah looks forward to the coming of the “righteous servant” of Adonai who serves as a Cohen haGadol, making intercession for the transgressors. However, that same high priest also fulfils the role of the scapegoat because he bears the sins and transgressions of his people Israel. The first generation of Messianic Jews saw Jesus as that righteous servant. He was the great high Priest, palely foreshadowed by Aaron, and his death was the sacrificial offering that removed the guilt of sin for ever.  

The Passover at which Jesus died became the Day of Atonement. As he was being sacrificed on a tree, in order that he might be both scapegoat and high priest, Jesus prayed that God would forgive those who judicially murdered him because they did not know what they were doing. The great high priest was praying for the inadvertent sins of the people.

The blood of Jesus is Israel’s means of atonement.


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