Light from the Sidra

Emor ('Speak') 8 May 2015. 20th Iyyar 5775

Torah: Leviticus 16:1-24:23. Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31.

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)


Holiness and wholeness

One of my favourite comedy sketches features a one-legged man auditioning for the part of Tarzan. Peter Cook, playing the part of the impresario, remarks to the would-be action hero: ‘Mr. Spiggott, you, a one-legged man, are applying for the role of Tarzan – a role which, traditionally, involves the use of a two-legged actor… And yet you, a unidexter, are applying for the role… A role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement…’

Even in these days of equal opportunity and political correctness, all but the most rigorous PC advocate would kick up a fuss about a unidexter being turned down for the role of a man who swings through the jungle and fights assorted wild beasts. But when we look at the job specs for the Aaronic priesthood, as laid out in Leviticus 21, at first sight they appear jaw-droppingly un-PC. He must not marry a widow, a divorcee or a foreigner, and ‘only a virgin of his people shall he take as a wife.’

And then there were prohibitions against descendants of Aaron who were not up to scratch physically: ‘Any man in whom there is a blemish shall not approach: a man who is blind or lame or whose nose has no bridge, or who has one limb longer than the other; or in whom there will be a broken leg or a broken arm; or who has abnormally long eyebrows, or a membrane on his eye, or a blemish eye, or a dry skin eruption, or a moist skin eruption, or who has crushed testicles…’

Such people could eat the holy food but they could not offer sacrifices or carry out the traditional priestly duties. Imagine turning someone down as rabbi or a priest or an imam today because they were blind or lame, or their eyebrows were ‘abnormally long’! In a day when we think we know so much better than the ancient Hebrews, who would want to serve such a bigoted divinity? To a post-modern, politically-correct generation all this seems the height of prejudice but just as two legs would appear to be the minimum requirement for playing Tarzan, performing the role of a priest in ancient Israel demanded certain physical and moral minimum requirements.

The point of these stringent precepts was that the priests of Israel were to be holy. They were a holy people within a holy nation. If the nation was to be holy, the priests were to be like the rest of the nation, only more so. To be holy is to be different; to be holy is to be like God. The reason we find it so hard to relate to the standards of the book of Leviticus is that we have a low view of God and holiness.

Mankind’s original fall occurred because of a desire to be like God: ‘You will be like God, knowing good and bad.’ But Adam and Eve were already like God; they had been created in his image. They already knew the difference between good and bad. To be good was to obey HASHEM; to be bad was to make up their own rules. It is important to bear in mind that God does not simply ‘know’ what is good or bad, as though those moral qualities were to be found outside himself. God is good. Whatever is contrary to his goodness is, by definition, bad.

If the nation of Israel was called to reflect the divine image, the priests more so. Therefore, to be a priest required moral uprightness and physical perfection. Physical imperfection was a side effect of the fall of man in Eden and therefore a blind or lame priest was a contradiction in terms. HASHEM is perfect and that perfection had to be reflected not just in the moral character but also the physical condition of the priests.

The Haftarah in Ezekiel 44 looks forward to a perfect temple in which the priest would also have to be physically and morally fit to serve in it. The service of God was not a matter of right for everyone who was descended from Aaron.

At the time of the second temple the lame and blind were routinely prevented not only from serving as priests but also from entering the inner courts of the temple. Some scholars point to 2 Samuel 5 (‘the blind and the lame… shall not enter the house’) and texts discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls as the rationale for this longstanding discrimination against the physically impaired.

At the festival of Pesach in 33CE, however, when Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem as ‘the Son of David,’ the Messiah, and made the astounding claim that the temple was his house. Having previously declared himself to be greater than the temple, he first of all drove out the money changers and them welcomed the blind and the lame into his house and healed them. By these actions Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5: ‘Behold, your God will come with revenge, with Divine retribution; He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened… then the lame will skip like a gazelle…’

The restoring of the blind and lame signalled the beginning of a new era; the Messianic Age had dawned! The blind and the lame could at last participate in the blessings of God's kingdom.

Within the space of three months another remarkable miracle, recorded in The Acts of the Apostles by a Jewish doctor called Luke, took place. ‘Kefa and Yohanan were going up into the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. A certain man who was lame from his mother’s womb was being carried. He was laid daily at what is called the “Beautiful Gate” of the Temple to ask charity from those who entered into the Temple. Seeing Kefa and Yohanan about to go into the Temple, he asked to receive charity. Fixing his eyes on him, Kefa, with Yohanan, said… “In the name of Yeshua the Natzri, the Messiah, rise up and walk!” …Immediately his feet and his ankles received strength. Leaping up, he stood and began to walk. He entered with them into the Temple, walking, leaping, and praising God.’

The newly healed man could now enter the temple – restored physically and socially. This was a glimpse into the new reality of the kingdom of God that had been ushered in by the resurrected Messiah. This is good news for us all. The miracle was a sign that the effects of sin, including death itself, had been overcome by the Messiah and the gates of the heavenly kingdom are now open to all.

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