Light from the Sidra

Shmini ('Eighth [day]'). 22 March 2014. 20 Adar 5774

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

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)

Clean water and a new spirit

I don’t know about you but I never came across a rule I didn’t want to break. When I was a kid, if I saw a ‘Keep off the Grass sign’ in the park, I’d want to walk, run, jump and roll all over it. Now, whatever the speed limit is on the road on which I’m driving, I want to exceed it. They say confession is good for the soul but for the benefit of any officers of the law reading this, I hasten to add that I don’t deliberately break every rule and law I encounter, even though I’m often sorely tempted!

But the most hard-line anarchists among us recognise you can’t get through life without rules and regulations. What if there were no rules for spelling or grammar? How would you understand what you’re reading right now? How would we communicate if, like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, when we use a word it means just what we chose it to mean, neither more nor less? Imagine a game of soccer, cricket or baseball with not a single rule, even the offside rule.

What if parents never told their kids to brush their teeth after meals? Or not to play with fire? Or not to hit other children?

We can't live without rules and laws. From the smallest sub-atomic particle to the largest star, the universe is governed by the laws of physics that God has put in place. But it’s only human beings who break laws.

The parasha is about rules and regulations and the disastrous consequences of breaking God’s rules. Leviticus 9 begins with the appointing of Aaron and his sons to be mediators between Israel and their God. But the holiest men in the world are, when all is said and done, morally frail and feeble. How can they atone for the sins of the people until atonement has been made for their own sins? God, through Moses, instructs them as to how atonement is made and, as we saw in the first five chapters, it is done through blood.

As Aaron and his sons complete the seven-day period of purification and preparation they commence their priestly duties by blessing the people but then disaster strikes. Two of the holiest men in the nation – Nadab and Abihu – offered ‘alien fire’ that God had not commanded and are both consumed by fire from HASHEM. The priests had to sanctify the name of HASHEM by carrying out his instructions to the letter. The smallest infringement meant death. If the priests didn't obey the laws of God perfectly, how could the people be any better?

Some Jewish people become angry at the thought of being ‘the chosen people.’ Chosen for what?’ To suffer? No; chosen for the high honour of being holy just as HASHEM is holy. Chosen to be a light to the nations. Chosen to be a blessing to the nations. But with privilege comes responsibility.

To be holy is to be set apart for God, just as the best dinner service is set apart for when special guests come for a meal. The priests were set apart from the people but the people were set apart from the nations to be God’s special possession. And that holiness of the people was reflected even in what they ate and did not eat.

Israel was to be God’s new humanity. Adam and Eve, before he rebelled against God lived in a beautiful Garden, where it was intended that they would know HASHEM and enjoy him forever. Their love for God would be demonstrated in want they did not eat. Being expelled from the Garden they were cast out from his presence into the wilderness.

God was bringing Israel through the wilderness, back to himself. The Tabernacle was based on the Garden of Eden. It was the place where God met with man and the place where it was set up was in the wilderness of Sinai. Adam and his wife had been driven out of the Garden to the east and from then on terrifying cherubim guarded the way to the Tree of Life. There were representations of the Tree of Life and cherubim in the Tabernacle and in order to enjoy fellowship with God, Israelites had to enter the Tabernacle from the east.

All this symbolism should have reminded the people that they were part of God’s plan to bring us all back to the Garden. And it was important that, unlike Adam, the people of Israel did not blow it. But they did.

Just as Adam was expelled from the Garden for breaking the rules, Israel was exiled from the land. In the exile God spoke to Ezekiel, who was himself a priest, about how he viewed Israel’s sins: ‘Son of Man [Hebrew: Ben Adam], the House of Israel dwell on their land, and they have contaminated it with their way and with their acts; their way has become like the contamination of a menstruous woman before Me. So I poured out my wrath upon them . . .’ (Ezekiel 36:16-18).

Then, in verse 25, God promises, I will take you from [among] the nations and gather you from among all the lands, and I will bring you to your own soil. Then I will sprinkle pure water upon you, that you may become cleansed; I will cleanse you from all your contamination and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.’

The people returned from exile but the last of the prophets, Malachi, revealed that the people were just as perverse as they had ever been. And today so many Jewish people are atheists. What went wrong?

The Gospel of John in the New Testament records a meeting between Jesus and Nakdimon, a leading Torah scholar:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nakdimon, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nakdimon said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’

Nakdimon, a Torah scholar, had never understood the need to be sprinkled with ‘pure water’ in order to be free from all his spiritual ‘contamination.’ Religion, even Judaism, without a ‘new heart’ and a ‘new spirit’ counts for nothing. All of us need to be born again of water and spirit.

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