Light from the Sidra

Metzora (‘Leper’). 16th April 2016. 8th Nisan 5776.

Torah: Leviticus 14:1–15:33. Haftarah: Malachi. 3:4–24

HASHEM has come to his Temple

One of the scariest experiences I ever had occurred late one night in 1971. I was returning home when I saw some members of a local gang. I knew them pretty well and when they told me with absolute seriousness that they’d seen a ‘monster’ I laughed. But as we talked one of the guys whispered, ‘He’s here!’ Everyone went quiet as a tall, dark figure in a long black coat walked slowly up the street. As the figure came closer, in the streetlight I could make out a pale, hideous face. And he was walking directly towards me! My legs turned to jelly when one of the gang pointed to me and told him, ‘Hey, he said you’re ugly’! The figure stopped, looked at me and began walking slowly toward me. Terrified doesn’t begin to describe how I felt but, as the monster reached me, he peeled back a latex mask. It was the missing member of the gang. Boy, was I relieved!
Ugliness fascinates and repels us. Movie makers compete with each other to see who can create the most hideous monsters and there are now reality TV shows that entertain the masses by revealing the most stomach-turning skin problems imaginable. That, as they say, is entertainment.

Leprosy in ancient Israel was a skin problem so serious that it resulted in sufferers being quarantined from the rest of the community. Leprosy was a living death. If you were a leper, you were cut off from the congregation of Israel until you were healed, and in the history of Israel recorded in the Tanakh, few people were ever healed. One of the few exceptions was actually an enemy of Israel, Naaman the commander-in-chief of Syria’s army, whose story is recounted in 2 Kings 5.

Leprosy, as defined in Leviticus 14, wasn’t necessarily what we know today as Hansen’s Disease, an infection which attacks the skin and nerves of sufferers resulting in the loss of fingers and toes. Nevertheless, if someone in ancient Israel broke out in blotches they had to be examined and if the infection turned out to be ‘leprosy’ the sufferer was put out of the camp of Israel, away from contact with family, friends, society and, worst of all, God. Lepers were ritually unclean and had to announce the fact so that others could give them a wide berth.

But why should people with unsightly skin problems be excluded from society at large and, more importantly, why should they not be able to worship God before they are cured? There was obviously more to the laws of leprosy than met the eye. The unsightly physical conditions afflicting humanity are a testimony to the fact that something is fundamentally wrong with the world.

If dad ignores the instructions for a new television and the TV fails to work, the entire family suffers. When Adam and Eve believed they were smart enough to know right from wrong without God’s help, they threw the entire creation out of whack and we are all suffering the resulting consequences. Thorns, thistles, painful childbirth and a whole host of other evils, including leprosy, are the result of Adam and Eve’s single act of rebellion. But they were assured that one day the ‘seed of the woman’ would undo the evil results the serpent had brought on the human race but at the time of Moses, Israel was living between the promise and the fulfilment.

When a leper was healed, the first thing had to do was to present himself to the priests to be examined and certified clean. When pronounced clean, he was free to approach God and worship him. Although leprosy was not a moral or ethical issue, when the leper was cleansed a sin offering and guilt offering had to be presented to God (Lv. 14:10ff). Leprosy came into the world as a result of Adam’s sin so, even though the condition was not a result of sin on the part of the sufferer, atonement had to be made.

This week’s Haftarah anticipates Passover and focuses on the coming of the Messenger of the Covenant, the forerunner of the Messiah, the ‘seed of the woman’. Malachi’s generation was rebellious and he foretells judgement on the sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, extortioners, oppressors of widows, orphans and aliens. The people were stealing from HASHEM by withholding their tithes while at the same time speaking evil of God and so the great and awesome day of HASHEM was coming.

But why does the Haftarah reading begin with Malachi 1:4 instead of Malachi 1:1? We can’t understand verses 4 to 24 without the first four verses. In verse 1, HASHEM declares, ‘Behold, I am sending My messenger, and he will clear a path before Me; suddenly [Adonai] Whom you seek will come to his Sanctuary… He will purify the children of Levi and refine them like gold and like silver, and they shall be for HASHEM presenters of offerings in righteousness.’ There’s a similar prophecy in Haggai 2:9: ‘The glory of this latter Temple will be greater than [that of] the first.’ The two prophecies are linked: the glory of HASHEM came to Solomon’s Temple in such a way that the priests were not able to minister. What could be more glorious than that glory!

Malachi says that Adonai will come to his Sanctuary and purify the children of Levi. ‘Purify’ in Malachi 4 is the same word used for the cleansing of lepers. The lepers were only ceremonially unclean but the most holy men in the nation were in need of cleaning from moral pollution! But this had to happen while the Temple was still standing. But the Sanctuary ceased to exist when the Romans armies sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE? When did HASHEM come to that Sanctuary? Were Malachi and Haggai false prophets? Or did HASHEM really come to his Temple with glory and cleanse the priests in a way that has been forgotten – or hushed up – by the Sages?

For the answer, we have to look at the New Testament, where we discover that Elijah, the messenger of the covenant, was a man called John the Baptist. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and declared that the Temple was ‘his house’ while throwing out the money changers who were polluting it. His presence was the glory of HASHEM coming to the temple and we are told that a great many of the priests – the children of Levi – became ‘obedient to the faith’.

Two choices face you, therefore. Either admit that Jesus is the Messiah and become obedient to the faith, or else be forced to admit that there two false prophets in the Tanakh!

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