Light from the Sidra

Tzav (‘Command’). 26th March 2016. 16th Adar II 5776

Torah: Leviticus 6:1(8)-8:36. Haftarah: Jeremiah 7:21-8:3,9:22-23

They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let's eat!

Last weekend, during the Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez were involved in a 200mph crash from which both escaped unharmed. Alonso clipped the rear of Gutierrez's car as they approached Turn 3 on the eighteenth lap, and then into an airborne barrel roll across the gravel trap. A news report on the radio this morning asked whether Formula 1 racing is becoming ‘too dangerous’ and should be made safer (as if racing at three times the motorway speed limit could ever be ‘safe’!).

The fact is that some jobs, by their very nature, are dangerous. The more dangerous the job, the more rigorous the training has to be and the greater the safeguards that have to be set in place. But no job was as dangerous as that of the High Priest in ancient Israel. Following their ordination to the priesthood, in Leviticus 8:35, Aaron and his sons were instructed to remain at the entrance to the tabernacle day and night for seven days. If they did not do so, they would die.

When it came to the priesthood, God operated a one-strike-and-you’re-out-policy. No verbal warnings. No formal written warnings. No dismissal. Just death. The priests were holy. They were set apart to represent the people to God. The priests were to familiarise themselves with God’s requirements and had to carry out their duties to the letter. If they failed, it was curtains.

All of that might appear a tad harsh (to put it mildly). But isn’t that what we’ve learned to expect since the first three chapters of the Torah? God told Adam and Eve they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would die. They ate. They died. One strike. They were out.

The reason we might be tempted to think HASHEM’s mitzvot are too extreme is that we do not understand his holiness. And the reason we do not understand the holiness of God is because we are not holy. How can finite unholy creatures understand infinite holiness?
The Haftarah this week makes it clear that Israel didn’t understand HASHEM or his commandments: ‘Let not the wise man glorify himself with his wisdom, and let not the strong man glorify himself with his strength, let not the rich man glorify himself with his wealth. For only with this may one glorify himself — contemplating and knowing Me, for I am HASHEM, who does kindness, justice and righteousness in the land, for in these is my desire.’

Israel failed to contemplate HASHEM and they continued to disobey him until they were sent into exile. Notice, however, HASHEM not only does justice and righteousness; he also does chesed, covenant faithfulness and kindness. He had entered into covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give them descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the land in perpetuity.

All this provides a fascinating link to Purim, which took place on Thursday. Judah was exiled in 597BCE because of HASHEM’s justice and righteousness. But while his people were in exile, HASHEM continued to be faithful to his covenant, even for those Jews who chose to remain in the Babylonian empire. When Haman, a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemy Amalek, set in motion a plot to exterminate every Jew in the Persian Empire, HASHEM stepped in to save his people and Haman ended up hoist with his own petard.

Being Jewish is a great privilege but with privilege comes responsibility. To whom much is given much is required, which is why HASHEM says to Israel: ‘You alone did I know of all the families of the earth; therefore I will hold you to account for all your iniquities’ (Amos 3:2). Being a Jewish priest was an even greater privilege and therefore carried greater responsibilities. But Purim affirms that HASHEM is faithful to his covenant. Am Yisrael chai!

Even though I’m a Gentile and don’t dress up or get shickered at Purim, I rejoice with Jewish people at the festival. If Haman’s plan had succeeded, the world would be without hope because God promised that he would bless the nations through Abraham and his descendants; one of them in particular. If the Jewish people had been exterminated at the time of Esther the Messiah could not have come. And if the Messiah had not come, the nations could not be blessed. And without God’s blessing, the world would remain under his curse.

Thank God for Purim! Let’s eat!

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