Light from the Sidra

Acharei Mot/Kedoshim ('After the death'/'Holies') 1 May 2015. 13th Iyyar 5775

Torah: Leviticus 16:1-20:27. Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Deep cleaning

As we prepare to go to the polls to elect a new government, one of the foremost issues in the run up to the election is the National Health Service. More than five years ago, in the Labour government’s final term of office, so many patients were contracting Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) that Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested ‘deep-cleaning’ hospitals in order to rid them of the deadly bacteria lurking in their wards. How hospitals would prevent the return 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 entered the holiest site on earth, the place in the tabernacle where heaven and earth met, where the 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) and Leviticus 16 begins 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 too. If that were the case with the High Priest, where was the hope for the average Israelite? Who could possibly stand before the awesome holiness of HASHEM and live? But if the people were to know the presence of God with them someone had to approach him on their behalf and the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, was the man chosen by God to do it.

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

The cleansing agent for the removal of sin is 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!’ (Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes).

Like all Israel’s rituals, the origin of the Yom Kippur blood ceremony can be traced to Genesis 3. Adam’s disobedience plunged the entire cosmos into chaos and mankind into a state of enmity with HASHEM. According to the fifteenth verse of Genesis 3, 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 serpent’s head being crushed but the serpent would nevertheless inject its deadly venom into the heel 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 there, in that city was their hope of atonement. 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. That is why some religious Jews long, as Daniel did, for the rebuilding of the temple and the restitution of the sacrificial system. In the meantime, they seem to imagine that matters can be set straight with the Almighty through ten days of good deeds and a day of fasting and penitence.

Our Torah portion screams that without the shedding of sacrificial blood, even inadvertent sins must be punished.

I find it curious, then, that the Haftarah reading is Amos 9, as the link to the Torah reading appears to be tenuous. A more appropriate reading would seem to be the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, which looks forward to the coming of the ‘righteous servant’ of Adonai who serves as a Cohen Gadol, 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, the great High Priest of Israel, palely foreshadowed by Aaron, whose death was the ultimate sacrificial offering that removed the guilt of sin for ever.

The Passover at which Jesus died became the Day of Atonement not only for Israel but also for the world. 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.

Since man’s first transgression in the Garden of Eden, we have all needed a priest, a mediator to approach God on our behalf. But as we see from the accounts of Aaron and his sons in Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar, the priests of Israel were flawed individuals who offered sacrifices that could never fully remove the sins of the people.

But in Jesus, Israel has a righteous High Priest whose blood can truly – not merely symbolically – remove the sins of his people. Everyone who trusts in him is forgiven of all their sins.

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