Light from the Sidra

Tzav ('Command')

Torah: Leviticus. 6:1-8:36 Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24(4:6)*

Deep cleaning for the soul!

It’s a turn up for the books when Israeli leaders welcome the appointment of a new pope but that’s what happened last week when Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as was appointed leader of the Roman Catholic church. Israeli President Shimon Peres declared that ‘the new pope will be welcomed in the Holy Land with love and appreciation by Jews, Muslims and Christians as one.’ Even Abraham Foxman the President of the Anti-Defamation League was ‘reassured’ over the new pope’s record regarding the Jews, while Rabbi David Rosen of American Jewish Committee labelled the incoming pontiff a ‘warm and sweet and modest man.’

I’m not a Roman Catholic (nor do I ever intend to be one) but when the newly elected pope addressed the media for the first time last Saturday, and reminded Catholics that Jesus, not the pope, is at the centre of the Church, my ears pricked up. Pope Francis, when he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, apparently lived in a simple apartment, cooked his own meals and used public transport to go to work. He chose the name Francis as his papal name after Francis of Assisi, a man of humility, poverty and peace. ‘Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor,’ he added. Well, let’s see how it goes shall we?

The reason I’m relating all this is that the Roman Catholic priesthood is modelled on the priesthood of that of Aaron and his sons. And in RC churches there are altars on which the priests believe that during the Mass they re-sacrifice Jesus – literally. Despite the best attempts of the church to duplicate the ancient Hebrew priesthood, however, it is impossible for them to do so. For a start, as we see in our Parasha, the high priests of Israel were directly appointed by God and not by a conclave of Jewish ‘cardinals’. Unlike Pope Francis, they were installed according to God’s instruction and had no freedom to determine what course they would like their priesthood to take. Aaron and his descendants represented the people to God and, as such, had two basic but vital duties to fulfil: to pray for the people and to offer sacrifices to atone for their sins.

The first part of today’s Torah portion (Lv. 6-7) records the law of the sacrifices and the second part (ch. 8) relates the consecration of Aaron and his sons for the work of the priesthood. According to chapter 8, after Moses brought Aaron and his sons to the door of the Mishkan, after first washing them he clothed them in their priestly garments. As High Priest, Aaron was clothed with a unique set of garments ‘for glory and for splendour’ (Ex. 28:2), which consisted of a tunic, a sash, a coat, an ephod and a breastplate in which was placed the Urim and the Tummim. On his head was placed a turban with a gold plate on which was engraved, ‘Holy to Adonai’. The Mishkan and the priests – the most holy place on earth and the holiest people of earth – were not only set apart for God with the sacred anointing oil but were purified with the blood of the hattat, or ‘de-sinning’ offering.

The blood of sacrifice was then applied to the ear lobes, the thumbs and the big toes of Aaron and his sons. They were consecrated and cleansed literally from head to toe, in order to mediate between the people and their God. In comparison with the setting apart of the Israelite priests, the consecration of the High Priest (the Pontifex Maximus) of the Church of Rome pales into insignificance. Even modern Judaism in all its forms has nothing to compare with it.

On YouTube, there is a fascinating time-lapse video of a bowl of fruit and vegetables decaying over a period of 70 days. It was created by taking a shot of the food every 40 minutes and then playing the film back at 30 frames per second so that in a minute-and-a-half you can see a process of decay that took over ten weeks to occur. Something similar can be seen with regard to the priesthood when we compare this week’s Torah portion with the Haftarah.

Malachi, the final prophetic book in the Torah, reveals a decadent priestly system in need of deep and thorough cleansing. The people were longing for the messenger of the covenant, the ‘voice in the wilderness’ of Is. 40:1-3, to clear the way for Adonai to come to his temple. But who could endure the coming of the Holy One of Israel? asks Malachi. The purpose of Adonai’s coming was to purge and purify the sons of Levi so they might ‘present offerings in righteousness, offerings pleasing to YHWH.’

That could take place only while a temple and priesthood were operating in Jerusalem. But there has been no temple in Jerusalem for over 1,900 years. If Adonai did not come to his temple while it was still standing and while the Levitical priesthood was officiating, then according to Dt. 18:22, Malachi was a false prophet and his book should be removed from the Bible! There is no alternative: either Malachi’s prophecy came to pass or else the last of the Hebrew prophets was a false prophet. I’ve never met an observant Jew who would accept that Malachi was anything other than a true prophet of God and yet they would be reluctant to accept that Israel’s God actually came to the temple and purified the Levites. After all, the corruption of the priests was one of the reasons the temple was destroyed.

I believe I know a solution to this seemingly insoluble problem, and I hope my Jewish readers will weigh what I am about to say. I’ll not beat around the bush. In the period of the second temple, an Elijah-like character called Yohanan the Immerser appeared in the wilderness of Judea announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand. Johanan claimed to be the forerunner of the Messiah foretold by Isaiah and Malachi. His task, he said, was to reveal the Messiah to Israel, and when he immersed Jesus in the Jordan River he identified him as the Messiah. The moment Jesus came out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on him. A Bat Kol, a voice from heaven, declared Jesus to be the Son of God.

On his final visit to Jerusalem at Passover in 33CE, Jesus entered the precincts of the temple and single-handedly threw out the numerous traders who were operating in the house of God, ripping off the worshippers. He took that radical course of action because, he said, the traders had turned his house into a den of brigands. Adonai, whom the people were seeking, had come to purify the sons of Levi at last. But he didn’t come to purify them outwardly. The priests and Levites purified themselves every day when they washed themselves in the temple. But outward cleansing didn’t prevent them from being inwardly corrupt. The people performed the mikveh every time they went to the temple but the mikveh did nothing more than cleanse the body. The prophet Ezekiel, however, foretold a day when Adonai would sprinkle clean water on his people and a put a new spirit (his Ruach HaKodesh) in them. Just as Aaron and his sons were purified and sanctified with blood, water and oil, a greater sacrifice, a cleaner water and a purer oil were required to totally purify the sons of Levi.

The book of Acts, the first written account of the Messianic movement that centred around Jesus, records that soon after Jesus offered himself as the final, ultimate atonement for the sins of his people and rose from the grave three days later, the word about him spread, ‘and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith’ (Book of Acts 6:10).

Reading the historical books of Scripture, we can’t fail to see that almost as soon as the Aaronic priesthood was established it began to decay (to see that, we need look no further than next week’s Parasha). The priesthood was always an inadequate institution because the cohanim were as morally weak as the people they represented. Like everyone else the priests died and could not continue their ministry. Nevertheless, the Aaronic priesthood served its purpose until the coming of a descendant of David who would be ‘a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’ (Ps. 110:4).

All this might be hard to accept because it flies in the face of 2,000 years of Jewish tradition. But what makes more sense? A God who promises what he can’t or won’t deliver, or a God who keeps his word in a far more wonderful way than could have been imagined even by the messengers who foretold it?

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