Light from the Sidra

Sh'mini (‘Eighth’). 2nd April 2016. 23rd Adar II 5776

Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47. Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

Born-again Israel

A few years ago, a Scottish newspaper broke the news that a paedophile who had been jailed in 1992 for indecently assaulting an eleven year old boy, upon release from prison had returned to his home town and reinvented himself as a ‘Messianic Rabbi’. His sin found him out when the Scottish Sunday Mail spilled the beans but what a pity that in spite of whatever good the man ever did in his life (if any) he will be remembered by thousands of people only for his vile abuse of a vulnerable child.

The only thing for which Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, two of the holiest men in Israel, are remembered is for offering ‘alien fire’ before HASHEM (Lev. 10:1). The two men had been sanctified for the service of HASHEM but their holy calling was no protection from the wrath of God. Indeed, the fact that they were priests made their actions more heinous for with great privilege comes great responsibility. It is difficult to know the precise nature of their sin but it has been suggested that they were drunk or that they formulated their own incense but the focus of the passage appears to be not so much on the ‘fire’ as the fact that HASHEM ‘had not commanded them’ to offer it. There are sins of omission as well as sins of commission. Both are equally serious.

Offering the wrong kind of incense might not appear to be a big deal but Nadab and Abihu died as a result. Eating a piece of fruit God had forbidden might not seem serious but when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they became guilty of rebellion against God and ultimately died. The wages of sin is indeed death.

Immediately after the account of the deaths of the sons of Aaron, there follows a list of kosher and treif food. We all know the story of the Jewish man who goes into a fishmonger, points to a lobster and says he’ll have ‘the salmon’. Eating lobster might not appear a great sin but the Jewish people are God’s holy people and they are to obey God. Does it matter what they eat? Well it matters to God and the obedience or disobedience of his people demonstrates whether they love God or not.

The Haftarah this week – Ezekiel 36:16-38 – reminds ‘the House of Israel’ that they went into exile for ‘contaminating [the land] with their way and with their acts.’ However, during the exile they defiled HASHEM’s name among the nations. We might expect HASHEM to declare he was finished with his rebellious people but he doesn’t. For God to cast away Israel would be to break his unconditional promises with the patriarchs of Israel. He is concerned for his name and reputation. How could nations know HASHEM is worthy of their trust and worship if he ever gave up on his people Israel? HASHEM therefore makes a remarkable promise to his people.

I will sprinkle pure water upon you, that you may become cleansed; I will cleanse you from all your contamination… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My spirit within you, and I will make it so that you will follow my decrees and guard My ordinances and fulfil them.

The Sages taught that we all possess a good inclination and an evil inclination. Although Israel is blessed with HASHEM’s commandments, those commandments are but an external set of precepts that provide no inner dynamic with which to keep them. The inclination to evil appears to triumph over the inclination to do good every time. Israel – and the rest of the world – has always needed more than a set of divine instructions about how to live. Jewish people, however pious, have always needed something more than external mikveh in which to cleanse themselves and they’ve always needed a heart that is empowered to love HASHEM. In short, they need a new spirit.

Even though the Torah was given to the Jewish people from heaven, it was never intended to make Jewish people or anyone else righteous. All the Torah ever did was to reveal our unrighteousness and to make those who truly love God long for genuine heart righteousness.

The story is told of Nakdimon, a member of the Sanhedrin in the period of the second temple, who visited Yeshua (Jesus) at night (no doubt because he didn’t want to be seen by anyone else). ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God,’ he said to Yeshua, ‘for no one can do these miracles that you do unless God is with him.’
Yeshua looked at him: ‘I assure you that unless one is born anew, he cannot see God’s kingdom.’

‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nakdimon asked. ‘Can he enter into his mother’s womb a second time?’

‘I assure you that unless one is born of water and ruach [spirit],’ said Jesus, ‘he cannot enter God’s kingdom. What is born of the flesh is flesh. What is born of the ruach [spirit] is ruach [spirit]. Do not wonder that I said to you, “You must be born anew.” The ruach [wind] blows where it chooses, and you hear its sound, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the ruach [spirit].”

‘How can these things be?’ asked Nakdimon.

To this Yeshua responded, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and do not know these things?’
Had Nakdimon been familiar with Ezekiel 36, the words of Yeshua should have come as a no surprise. Nor should they come as a surprise to any Jewish person familiar with the writings of the Hebrew prophets.

Is it not ironic, that millions of Gentiles today claim to be ‘born again’, while most Jews want to distance themselves from the term? Though HASHEM promised new birth to the Jewish people, most people who claim to be born again are Gentiles. Every Jewish person reading this should ask themselves why that should be. Why do Gentiles claim to have been born of the Spirit while the Jewish people make no such claim?

The answer is simple. ‘Born-again Christians’ believe the Jewish Bible and believe in the Jewish Messiah promised in that Bible. And if Gentiles who were once no part of the commonwealth of Israel can be born again and possess a new heart and a new spirit, how much more can Jewish people, to whom HASHEM made the promise, experience the blessing if they ask!

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