Light from the Sidra

Tzav (‘Command’). 28th March 2015. 8th Nisan 5775

Torah: Leviticus 6:1–8:36. Haftarah: Malachi 3:4–24..

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)


Purging and purity

As a student at a small college in Surrey, England, one of my daily chores was to rise at 5am to remove the ashes from the large coal-burning stove in the kitchen and make sure the fire was burning so the students could have breakfast. In those days, I wasn’t very good at getting up before the crack of dawn and one Sunday morning, more than an hour late, I sprinted to the college kitchen bleary-eyed, dishevelled and panic-stricken to find an irate Miss White, the cook, doing my chores for me. That morning Miss White supplied me with a never-to-be-forgotten lesson on the importance of ensuring the ashes were cleared from the oven every morning on time!

The fire on the altar in the tabernacle courtyard had to be constantly alight. There was not an hour of any day when a sacrifice to God was not burning on the altar, even at night. The Hebrew word for ‘offering,’ corban comes from a word meaning ‘to be close’, and the sacrifices on the altar kept the people or – when they sinned – brought the people close to God.

The fact that the fire had to be kept burning continually indicated a need for 24/7 atonement, so there was obviously something lacking in the ancient sacrificial system. None of the offerings could remove sin and guilt completely and finally, so atonement had to be made all the time.

In Leviticus 8, Aaron and his sons – the holiest men in the nation – had to offer a burnt offering and a sin offering for themselves. Even the altar on which atonement was made had to be sprinkled with blood to make atonement for it. If the priests and the means of atonement required atonement, something was lacking. HASHEM was making do with inadequate materials.

In the Haftarah, HASHEM promises Israel that he, the one the Israelites were seeking through their sacrifices, would come suddenly to His temple and purify the sons of Levi, purging them like gold and silver so they could present offerings in righteousness.

This is a remarkable text. At the time Malachi wrote, even though the returned exiles had abandoned their former idolatry, all was still not well. The message of Malachi was a rebuke to the carelessness and formality of Israel’s worship. The temple rituals had become empty and meaningless, and HASHEM’s call to both people and priests was, ‘Return to Me and I will return to you!’ (Malachi 3:7)

HASHEM’s promise to come to his temple and purify the priests poses a couple of perplexing questions. Malachi lived about 500 years before the temple was destroyed by the Romans and, since there has been no temple for the best part of 2,000 years, at what point in time did HASHEM come to his temple and purify the sons of Levi? The second question is this: Since there has been no temple and no priesthood for two millennia, if God didn't fulfil his promise while the temple was standing, how could he fulfil the promise after the temple had fallen?

Indeed, if the sons of Levi had been purified during the of the second temple period, why would the temple have been destroyed? We know from the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that the priesthood in the days of the second temple was corrupt and that the high priests were in cahoots with Israel’s Roman occupiers.

I don’t normally quote the New Testament in these meditations but the solution to this seemingly insoluble problem is to be found in its pages. Five days before his crucifixion, at Pesach in 33 C.E. Jesus of Nazareth arrived in Jerusalem accompanied by thousands of Galilean pilgrims who declared him to be the Son of David. He immediately entered the temple, declaring it to be his house: ‘And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers’ (Gospel of Matthew 21:12f).

To justify his clearing the religious swindlers out of the temple Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7, in which God says, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ Jesus saw himself as the God of Israel purifying his temple, having as much right to throw out the merchants as a home-owner has to throw unwanted guests out of his house.

Jesus purified the temple but what of the priests themselves, the sons of Levi? In an early account of the ‘Jesus movement,’ in ancient Israel ‘the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and ‘a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith’ (Acts of the Apostles 6:7).

To be ‘obedient to the faith’ of Messiah is to be purified by an offering infinite in its power to cleanse from sin and defilement; an offering that does not require a perpetual fire to be kept burning on an earthly altar. To believe in the Messiah is to become of a member of the New Covenant promised though Jeremiah the prophet:

Behold, days are coming — the word of HASHEM — when I will seal a new covenant with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah: not like the covenant that I sealed with their forefathers on the day that I took hold of their hand to take them out of the land of Egypt, for they abrogated My covenant, although I became their Master — the word of HASHEM. For this is the covenant that I shall seal with the House of Israel after those days— the word of HASHEM — I will place My Torah within them and I will write it onto their heart; I will be a God for them and they will be a people for Me. They will no longer teach — each man his fellow, each man his brother — ‘Know HASHEM!’ For all of them will know Me, from their smallest to their greatest — the word of HASHEM — when I will forgive their iniquity and will no longer recall their sin (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

What greater purification could there be than to have the Torah inscribed on one’s heart, to gladly heed the word of God and to have one’s sins forgiven, never to be remembered. Messiah initiated a new and better covenant and with it a new pure priesthood that includes not only the sons of Levi but also all who are in the new covenant!

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