Light from the Sidra

Emor ('Speak')

Torah: Leviticus 21:1-24:23. Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

The quality of mercy

The Torah doesn’t really seem to be into equal opportunities and human rights. It’s God-centred rather than man-centred and focuses on duties to God and man rather than on universal human rights. For example, not everyone has a right to serve as priests in the temple, even if they could claim Aaron as their progenitor: ‘And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying, ‘None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long…’”’ (Lv. 21:16-18).

The present day clamour for women and gays to be able to serve as rabbis and bishops would have received short shrift in the time of Moses. Even people we would term ‘physically challenged,’ such as the blind and lame, could not serve in the temple. And as we read through the Tanakh, we find that blind and lame people crop up at some significant points.

The Torah and Haftarah deal with who may serve as priests in the Mishkan and in the future glorious messianic temple portrayed in Ezekiel. Both feature similar lists of what constitutes priestly purity and although the lame and blind don’t feature in Ezek. 44, the prohibition on them serving in the temple no doubt holds true. The only way a blind or lame descendant of Aaron could become a priest would be if he was healed of his malady.

King David, it seems, actually disliked blind and lame people. After the Jebusites taunted David, claiming that even ‘the blind and the lame’ could defend Jerusalem against him (2 Sam. 5:6ff), it was said that ‘the blind and the lame’ would not enter the palace. So in 2 Sam. 9, when David remembered the covenant he had entered into with Jonathan twenty years previously, under which he swore to show the kindness (chesed) of God to Jonathan and his descendants (1 Sam. 20), he found himself on the horns of a dilemma. The only descendant of Jonathan about whom Ziba informed him was Mephibosheth, a cripple. For David to admit a lame man into his palace would involve him eating a large slice of humble pie but, because of his covenant with Jonathan, he was duty-bound before God to keep his promise. The covenant superseded David’s feelings. And so Mephibosheth was brought from the house of Machir ben Ammiel in Lo Debar to eat at David’s table as one of the king’s sons.

The way David treated a man who would not have been allowed to serve in the house of God, even if he had been a descendent of Aaron, is a picture of the chesed God shows to those who are disqualified by their sins from approaching him. The way in which David dealt with a man to whom he had a natural aversion, showed him to be truly the man after God’s heart. The covenant mercy David showed to Mephibosheth, the grandson of his arch enemy Saul, is the covenant kindness and mercy God shows us. The mercy David showed to the crippled grandson of his arch enemy was undeserved (as all mercy is) and it was based on covenant (as God’s mercy always is). David brought Mephibosheth from Lo Debar, which means ‘No pasture,’ to eat at his table in Jerusalem. Furthermore, he restored to Mephibosheth all the land of his grandfather Saul and virtually adopted him as one of his sons.

Inspired by the prophet Ezekiel, among others, later generations looked back to Israel’s golden age when they were shepherded by a man after God’s heart and looked forward to the coming of the Son of David. This descendant of Israel’s greatest king would unite the tribes of Israel and supervise a glorious temple in which pure worship would be conducted by a pure priesthood free from moral and physical defects.

At the time of the second temple, however, the blind and lame were not only prohibited from serving as priests, they were also excluded by the Sadducees from the temple itself. To be cut off from the temple was to be cut off from communion with God. That’s why the message of Jesus is Good News, because the New Testament presents him as the Son of David, full of chesed ve emet, grace and truth (John 1:14). In the Good News according to Mattityahu (Gospel According the Matthew) 4, Jesus underwent a mikveh in the Jordan River, after which the Ruach Kodesh came upon him, as he had come upon David in 1 Sam. 13:14, to anoint him as the Messiah. And as David showed chesed to a lame man, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also shows chesed to both the lame and the blind.

In Matthew 9:27, two blind men (one of the categories of people David refused to have in his house) approach Jesus, addressing him as the Son of David and pleading for him to show chesed to them. They enter Jesus’ house and he heals them. The same pattern continues throughout Matthew’s Gospel and culminates with his entry into Jerusalem at Pesach in 33CE, a few days prior to his execution. Immediately on entering Jerusalem, Jesus cleared the temple of the buyers and sellers who were taking advantage of the Pesach pilgrims and opened the house of God (which he called ‘my house’) to the blind and the lame, who he then healed.

If any of those blind or lame were descended from Aaron, they were then free not only to approach God in the temple but also to serve him in the priesthood. David showed grace and mercy to Mephibosheth but he could not heal him; David’s greater son not only allowed the blind and lame to come into his house but also healed them, freeing them to serve God.

Through the Brit Hadashah, the New Covenant established by the shedding of his own blood, great David’s greater Son welcomes the spiritually blind and the halachicly lame (not only Jews but also Gentiles) into his temple and establishes them as a pure priesthood.

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