Light from the Sidra

Acharei Mot ('After the death') 11 April 2014. 12 Nissan 5774

Torah: Leviticus.16:1-18:30. Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24

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)

One rule for all

To be honest, I don’t think I knew until a week or so ago that the Culture Secretary – now the former Culture Secretary – was a lady called Maria Miller. Now Ms Miller is known by everyone not for her achievements while in office but for fiddling her expenses. The Prime Minister tried to get her off the kook by reminding his fellow MPs that his colleague had admitted making mistakes and had said sorry to the House of Commons so everyone should get over her misdemeanours and move on. If you or I make a false claim on our tax return, admitting we let the side down and making a 32-second apology will not do. The Right Honourable Member for Basingstoke can now reflect at leisure on the fact that under the law there is not one rule for MPs and another for those they are appointed to serve.

Maria Miller’s story is as old as the third chapter of Genesis in which, after eating a piece of fruit the Creator had withheld cost Adam and Eve and their descendants – i.e. you and me – the earth. Literally!

In Leviticus 10, we were forcefully reminded that sin has serious consequences whatever position we hold in society. Two of the holiest men in the nation were killed by God for what might appear to many an inconsequential transgression. And that, of course raises the question of how one finds forgiveness from a holy God. Saying sorry is simply not enough.

Yom Kippur was a great leveller. Whether you were the high priest or a lowly beggar, your sins had to be atoned in the way prescribed by HASHEM himself: by repentance and sacrificial blood.

The rituals associated with the Day of Atonement were the way in which God and his people Israel could coexist in harmony. The rituals fell into three main parts: first of all, the Tabernacle had to be purified from the pollution caused by the sins of the people. Each year the high priest, wearing a plain white linen robe (16:4), entered the Holy of Holies on behalf of Israel, where he sprinkled sacrificial blood on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.

On the Day of Atonement, Aaron the high priest was to offer a bull to purify himself and his family. He then sacrificed a male goat and took its blood into the Holy of Holies, where he placed blood on the Ark of the Covenant and sprinkled it in front of the Ark seven times. Aaron performed a similar ritual in the Holy Place in front of the golden altar of incense before placing some of the blood from the bull and the goat on the horns of the bronze altar of burnt offering in the courtyard (16:18). Finally, he sprinkled more of this blood seven times on the altar to cleanse it (16:19).

If you find the details of this ritual sleep inducing, the high priests of Israel certainly didn’t. Any deviation from the precise details given by God to Moses meant instant death. God was deadly serious about atonement.

Early in the morning on the Day of Atonement, two goats were brought to Aaron and lots were cast to determine which goat would be sacrificed as a purification offering. After purifying the Tabernacle with the blood of the first goat, the high priest pressing both hands on the head of the second goat and confessed over it ‘all the iniquities of the Children of Israel, and all their rebellious sins among all their sins’ (16:21). The goat was then led to an uninhabited place in the desert and released (16:26).

The Day of Atonement was the most important occasion in the calendar of ancient Israel, designed to atone for the sins which were not covered by sacrifices offered throughout the rest of the year. The seriousness of the pollution caused by these sins is indicated by the fact that blood was required to make atonement for the most sacred part of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies.

In Leviticus 17:11, God tells Moses: ‘For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you on the Altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul.’ After the second temple was destroyed and Israel was left without the means of blood atonement, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai ruled that repentance was an even more efficacious means of atonement. No wonder ben Zakkai died in despair and terror. The idea that repentance can be a substitute for blood reminds me of an early episode from The Muppet Show in which Gonzo frantically rushes on stage and tells Kermit he needs a typewriter. When Kermit says he doesn’t have one, Gonzo exits stage left yelling, ‘Then I’ll have to use a cow!’ I still smile at the absurdity but find myself trying to imagine a scenario in which a cow could be a substitute for a typewriter.

Repentance alone can never atone for our souls. Whereas the former Culture Secretary took all of 32 seconds to admit her wrong doing, on Yom Kippur today Jewish people spent an entire day confessing their guilt and expressing their sorrow. Nevertheless, if you need a typewriter, a cow isn’t going to get the job done.

In this respect, it’s curious that the Haftarah begins with the fourth verse of Malachi 3 rather than the first verse because verses 1-3 declare that HASHEM, whom the people were seeking, would come to his temple as the Messenger of the Covenant and would cleanse the temple and the Levites. Which raises the question: When did HASHEM come to that Temple? When did the Messenger of the Covenant appear in the Temple? If it didn’t happen, the Tanakh has the writing of a false prophet within its pages.

The solution to that conundrum is found in the four Gospels in the New Covenant Scriptures. They record that at Passover 3793 (33CE), Jesus of Nazareth threw the corrupt sons of Levi from the Temple and declared it to be his house! You can reject that story if you like but if you do, there is no record in any other Jewish source of HASHEM returning to the Temple to cleanse it. And if that is the case, Malachi was a false prophet and the very Temple to which the Messenger of the Covenant was to come has passed away for ever.

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