Light from the Sidra


Leviticus 6:1-8:36.Haftarah.1 Samuel 15:1-34

We have all been shocked by the pictures of the Japanese earthquake and the tsunami that followed. Each day – almost with bated breath – we await news from the nuclear facility at Fukushima as the authorities struggle to bring the situation under control. We admire the fifty men who remain at the site, willing to die in order to protect their countrymen from the horrors of meltdown.

Some jobs by their very nature are dangerous. None more so in ancient Israel than that of the Cohen haGadol, the High Priest. In Leviticus 8:35, God warns Aaron and his sons, following their ordination to the priesthood, to remain at the entrance to the tabernacle day and night for seven days. If they did not do so, they would die.

When it came to the priesthood, God operated a one-strike-and-you’re-out-policy. No verbal warnings. No formal written warnings. No dismissal. Just death. The priests represented the people to God. The priests were told what was required of them, they had to familiarise themselves with God’s requirements and they had to carry out their duties to the letter. If they failed, they died.

All that may appear a tad harsh. But isn’t that what we’ve been learning since the first three chapters of the Torah? God told Adam and Eve they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would die. They ate and they died.

The reason we think of God’s mitzvot as too extreme is that we do not understand the holiness of God. And the reason we do not understand the holiness of God is that we are not holy.

The Haftarah focuses on King Saul’s disobedience to the command of God. God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites and all their possessions. Amalek had attacked Israel without provocation when Israel was in the Sinai on their journey from Egypt. In Exodus 17:16, God declared to Moses that he would “have war with Amalek from generation to generation”. In Deuteronomy 25:17ff, Israel was charged to:

Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget (Jewish Publication Society translation).


In obedience, Saul’s wiped out all the Amalekites except their king Agag and the best of Amalek’s livestock. His intention, so he told Samuel, was to sacrifice the cattle and sheep to Yahweh. Samuel’s response was sharp and succinct:

Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in hearkening to the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, He hath also rejected thee from being king (1 Sam 15:22f, JPS translation).

Patriotism is not only the refuge of scoundrels; religion has also proved a convenient bolt hole for many a rogue.

However, we must not misunderstand Samuel’s words. He was not telling Saul that sacrifices were redundant. If that was the case, why are the first seven chapters of Leviticus taken up with the minute details of what sacrifices were to be offered, for what purpose and how they were to be offered? Sacrifices were (if you will excuse the term) a necessary evil. Without sin and disobedience there would be no need for substitutionary offerings. God would prefer it that we did not sin at all. But since we do sin, we need atonement and atonement can be achieved only by the shedding of blood.

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