Light from the Sidra

Tetzaveh (‘You will command’). 20th February 2016. 11th Adar 5776

Torah: Exodus 27:20–30:10. Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27

The Go-Between

It’s pretty much an article of faith in Judaism that Jewish people don’t need a mediator in order to be able to approach God but in the book of Exodus, when God gave his law, the people pleaded with Moses to act as their mediator. It’s one thing to say that every Jew can approach God without the need for a go-between when you are reciting the Kaddish at a synagogue in a leafy London suburb or at a temple in Los Angeles. It’s quite another when you are standing at the foot of a mountain on which the holy Creator of the Universe has just descended in smoke and fire and the ground is literally quaking under your feet!

As a prophet, Moses stood between the people and God but in this week’s Parasha, Aaron was divinely appointed as a mediator between God and the people. As the anointed high priest, Aaron – and his sons after him – mediated between God and his people in two vital ways. First, the priests offered sacrifices at the bronze altar in the Tabernacle courtyard to atone for Israel’s sins (Ex. 29:38-46) and, secondly, they prayed for Israel at the gold altar of incense located in front of the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (Ex. 30:1-10). On Yom Kippur the blood of atonement was shed at the bronze altar, after which it had to be applied to the horns of the altar of incense in the tabernacle. Without the shedding of blood there was no possibility of atonement.

The tabernacle was the place where heaven and earth intersected and the fact that Aaron was set apart and dressed in the same materials from which the tabernacle was constructed suggests he was a kind of walking, talking, living tabernacle. When he wore his garments of glory before the people he represented God in his glorious holiness but when he stood before God in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, clothed in a plain white robe, he represented the penitent people to God. To the people he represented God; to God he represented the people.

One of the most fascinating items of Aaron’s clothing was the breastplate (Ex. 28:15-30), a simple linen pouch to which were attached twelve precious stones set in gold, each engraved with the name of a tribe of Israel. The high priest also carried two gems attached to his shoulders, each engraved with the names of six tribes. All this was, of course, symbolic. But symbols mean something. In his garments of glory, Aaron symbolised a God who carries his people as precious jewels on his heart and on his shoulders. (28:29).

Since the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, however, Israel has had no Levitical high priest. Who intercedes for Israel now? Who atones for their sins now there is no temple? Why would a God who regards his people as precious gems leave them without a mediator? Why would he leave them without atoning blood and without someone to carry them on his heart?

But what if a purely human mediator is no longer required? What if Israel actually has a super human mediator who fulfilled all that the priestly symbols represented?

Although appointed by HASHEM himself, the ancient high priests were inadequate mediators because they were as morally and spiritually flawed as the people they represented. So what if HASHEM took matters into his own hands and became a man without ceasing to be God? Wouldn’t he be the perfect Mediator? As a true human, the pure, holy and sinless God could experience temptation without giving in to it but would therefore be able to sympathise with humans.

Such an anointed mediator, or Messiah, would be the kind of high priest we all need; a Mediator who is absolutely holy, truly blameless and sinless. Such a God-man could truly carry his people on his heart. That kind of Mediator could truly atone for sins and pray for his people continuously and faithfully. And such a Mediator could do that because he would be truly clothed with the glory of God rather than in garments that only symbolised the divine glory. Even if you don’t believe in such a Mediator, don’t you wish such a divine-human High Priest really did exist? Someone who not only knew what it was like to be God but also what is was like to suffer the same temptations we endure?

But suppose for a moment that God did come into the world to be Israel’s great Mediator but Israel rejected him because they imagined they could be accepted on their own merits, rather than those of the Messianic high priest? That would be a tragedy of unparalleled proportions.

But suppose again that the divine high priest who carried Israel on his heart and shoulders continued to love Israel because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and mercifully refused to give up on them? Wouldn’t that be wonderful!
The fact is that Israel does have a merciful and faithful High Priest who intercedes for them in the heavenly tabernacle that served as the pattern for the earthly tabernacle. That doesn’t mean the sins of Jewish people are automatically forgiven but it does mean that atonement has been provided and remains open not only for Israel but also for all nations. And all it requires is for Israel to repent and believe.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart;
I know that while in heaven He stands
No one can tell me to depart.

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