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Light from the Sidra

Sh'mini ('Eighth') 17 April 2015. 29th Nissan 5775

Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47. Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42.

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)

 

Catch 22

Leviticus 10 is one of those biblical passages loved by critics of the Bible because it appears to reveal HASHEM as a mean-minded, vindictive deity. Nadab and Abihu infringe what appears to us to be a minor commandment but they die in a terrifying conflagration. But Nadab and Abihu don’t seem to us to be bad people in the current sense of the term ‘bad.’ What does it matter if they offered ‘alien fire’ to HASHEM? They weren’t harming anyone. They weren’t breaking the Ten Commandments. Perhaps God should lighten up a little!

But in the first three chapters of the Bible we can see that God’s standards are infinitely higher than ours. The first temptation mankind faced was to be like God; able to make our own decisions as to what is right and what is wrong. And we are still failing the test today. To us, eating forbidden fruit appears trivial but the point is that the first human pair didn’t love HASHEM enough to obey his one limitation on their freedom. If two morally innocent human beings failed to keep a single mitzvah, what hope does Israel have of keeping 613 mitzvot?

A number of explanations have been proposed for the sudden deaths of Nadab and Abihu on what appears to have been their first public act of worship: they entered the holy of holies; they didn’t wear the requisite clothes; they took fire from the kitchen not the altar; they didn’t consult Moses and Aaron; they didn’t consult one another. Some commentators say they were guilty of hubris; others say they were impatient to assume leadership roles; others that the men did not marry, considering themselves above such things. Still others see their deaths as a delayed punishment for an earlier sin when at Mount Sinai they ‘ate and drank’” in the presence of God. Rashi says they were drunk.

Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorised, literally ‘strange’ or ‘alien’ fire (es zara) ‘that HASHEM did not command.’ According to Exodus 30: 7-9, Aaron alone was allowed to burn the morning and evening incense: ‘Upon it shall Aaron bring the spice incense up in smoke, every morning, when he cleans the lamps, he shall bring it up in smoke. And when Aaron kindles the lamps in the afternoon, he shall bring it up in smoke, continual incense before HASHEM, for your generations. You shall not bring upon it alien incense, or a burnt offering, or a meal offering; nor may you pour a libation upon it.’

With this in mind, we suddenly see that there was an audacity about the actions of Nadab and Abihu and a contempt for their father as they attempted to usurp his role and position. In a foreshadowing of the rebellion of Korah and his followers, the sons of Aaron became too big for their sandals. The fundamental reason why HASHEM killed them was not just that they had failed to honour their father but that they failed to glorify God: ‘I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honoured before the entire people’ (Leviticus 10:3). With privilege comes responsibility and therefore the heaviest responsibility was placed on the holiest and most privileged men in the nation.

Israel, to whom God entrusted his Torah, was to be a nation of priests and therefore bore a solemn responsibility. Nadab and Abihu failed to honour God before the people and Israel is still in exile for failing to honour HASHEM before the peoples. Judaism for the best part of two millennia has been offering ‘alien fire’ before HASHEM. ‘If one repents,’ says the Talmud, ‘it is imputed to him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem, built the temple, erected an altar and offered upon it all the sacrifices enumerated in the Torah.’ It is true, of course, that ‘the sacrifices God desires are a broken spirit…’ (Psalm 51:17) but you can’t make a single verse from the Psalms negate the entire Torah. Sacrifice and repentance are inseparable. Therefore when the sages of Israel equate repentance with sacrifice they teach Israel to offer alien fire to HASHEM. The technical term is avodah zera.

Israel appears to be in a Catch-22 situation. Israel needs a sacrifice for sin but lacks a temple and a priesthood to offer sacrifices. But even if the Jewish people once again recognised the need for blood sacrifices and appointed a priesthood to offer them, they would be in violation of the Torah because only the sons of Aaron can offer sacrifices, and the sacrifices have to be offered in the place God has appointed: Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Why would the God of Israel, the creator of the universe who is in control of all things and is righteous in all his ways, remove Israel’s only means of atonement while still demanding sacrifice for sin?

What if the offerings commanded in the Torah were symbols of a greater, ultimate sacrifice that fully and finally atoned for sin, rendering the sacrifices of Leviticus unnecessary? What if the priesthood was a pale foreshadowing of a single great high priest who would offer himself for the sins of his people? What if the temple itself was only a signpost toward a final glorious temple to be built without human hands? And what if those things to which the temple, the priesthood and the offerings pointed became a reality before the temple was removed?

According to the Hebrew prophet Hosea ‘For many days the Children of Israel will sit with no king, with no officer [Hebrew: sar, ‘prince’], no sacrifice, no pillar, and no ephod or teraphim. Afterward the Children of Israel will return, and seek out HASHEM their God and David their king, and they will tremble for HASHEM and for His goodness in the end of days’ (Hosea 3:4,5). The children of Israel have been without a temple, priest or sacrifice for 2,000 years, and Judaism bears little relationship to the religion of Moses. Synagogue has replaced the temple; rabbis have replaced the priesthood; repentance has replaced sacrifice. At its heart, Judaism today is no different to every man-made religion in the world.

Thankfully, HASHEM does not deal with every infringement of the Torah in the way he dealt with Nadab, Abihu because he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Instead, he has provided a final atonement not only so that Israel might return to him but also so that the Gentiles might seek after him and his goodness in King David’s greater son: Jesus the Messiah.

Will you still remain far away from HASHEM without king or atoning sacrifice or will you seek him and his goodness in King Messiah? Please contact me at mmoore@cwi.org.uk


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