One of the conceits of our day is the assumption that because we are later in time than those who went before us, we are therefore advanced beyond them in every area of knowledge and wisdom. If you will but pause to consider this for a moment, you will realize that there is no necessary link between time’s passing and wisdom’s advance. It is like saying, “The longer food is on the stove, the better it is.” No, not so: sometimes it burns and becomes ruined. And we need to imagine the possibility that with the passage of time, at least in some cultural contexts, and in some areas of life, truth and wisdom has spoiled with the passage of time, and those who came before us had a more savory dish to serve and eat than we have grown used to.
As a case in point I recently asked some senior citizens if they have seen a decline in any areas of human behavior since their youth. The answer was “Yes,” chiefly in the area of respectful relationship. There perceptions are borne out by M.I.T.’s Sherry Turkle in her disturbing and well documented book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More and More From Machines and Less and Less From Each Other.” In an excellent review in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reports on Turkle’s hypotheses in these terms:
Even as more and more people are projecting human qualities onto robots (i.e., digital toys like the Furby and computerized companions like the Paro, designed to provide entertainment and comfort to the elderly), we have come to expect less and less from human encounters as mediated by the Net.
Instead of real friends, we “friend” strangers on Facebook. Instead of talking on the phone (never mind face to face), we text and tweet. Technology, she writes, “makes it easy to communicate when we wish and to disengage at will.”
So much for but one example where, despite advances in technology, the relational quality of life is fast deteriorating. And the same is true of our relationships with God, what we expect or Him, and what we allow to be expected of ourselves.
In the chapters of Parshat Acharei Mot, which we consider today, chapters 16-18 of Leviticus, certain ideas from the past, which I view to be timeless, surface. These are at variance with the wisdom and mindset, the zeitgeist of our age. However, this makes them neither therefore true, nor untrue. These ideas must first be tasted and savored to see if this food is better than the spiritual junkfood which can be found wherever you wish to find it nowadays, at a price.
Let’s begin with chapter sixteen which references something described six chapters earlier, the death of two of Aaron’s four sons.
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died, and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat (Leviticus 16:1-2 ESV)
They were priests, and had just been through an elaborate seven-day induction ceremony wherein the Tabernacle was purified and atoned for, then Aaron and his sons with holy garments, elaborate sacrificial rituals, many animals sacrificed, all highlighting their extraordinary privilege and responsibility to draw near to the Presence of God manifest over the Ark of the Covenant in the midst of Israel. From then on they were to offer sacrifices, and act like an Israel in miniature, for at Sinai, HaShem constituted Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, called to draw near to God for the sake of others, whom they were to instruct in the knowledge of Israel’s God. The pageantry and mystery of the induction week culminated in fire falling from heaven to ignite the altar that had been consecrated to the glory of God.
Apparently, Aaron’s two sons were most impressed. Also apparently, they had a little too much to drink, because God later has Moses advise Aaron against mingling hard liquor with sacred service. Aaron’s sons had not gotten that memo, got a little bit looped, and then and went back into the Tabernacle to try and “make it happen again,” that is, make the fire fall. They figured, “Well when we did X,Y and Z, the fire fell. Let’s do it again and see what happens.” That is what they did, and the fire indeed fell, but this time it fell upon them, and they died.
A number of life lessons emerge.
The First Life Lesson:
The Second Life Lesson.
Access to God, proximity to him, being identified by others as His servant, is a great and joyous privilege, and also a fearsome responsibility. Never lose sight of that. Ya’akov HaTzaddik, the brother of Yeshua our Messiah, said it this way: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Again, we need to know who we are dealing with here, to know who it is before whom we stand. That people today don’t have time for such concepts calls into question whether they are really dealing with the God of the Bible!
Aaron the High Priest, and his sons, priests of Israel, needed to be the supreme example to the people of Israel out of respect for the Presence of God in the midst. How else were the people of Israel going to learn respect for God except from the modeling of their leaders ? This is why God deals so strictly with leaders and their sinful self-indulgences. This principle applies to all clergy representing the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of Yeshua the Messiah. When leaders disgrace themselves, this drags down the entire people of God. It is MOST serious. And this is why God deals so severely with Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, and later with a fellow named Uzzah, and of course with people like King David.
Moses states the principle right after these sons of Aaron died, in words that ought never to be forgotten: “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” These words should be a sobering warning to rabbis like me, ministers of all kinds, etc. The closer you draw to God and the greater your privilege, the greater your responsibility and accountability.
The Third Life Lesson.
With proximity to God, and access to him, come restrictions.
We read about some strict restrictions that God placed upon Aaron and his two remaining sons Eleazar and Ithamar. These sound severe, but these priests need to function in their role and calling, and not simply reflexively respond like family members. They are family members, but also much more!
And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the LORD has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.
The Fourth Life Lesson
We are called to serve a God who reminds us that there are some things we cannot know and are not entitled to know. The limitations placed on our knowledge do not, however, reduce our obligation to obey and serve Him.
We see this illustrated in our present context, but also elsewhere in the Bible. In Leviticus 16:11-13 we read this:
Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die.
Why the cloud of incense? Because the very Presence of God was visibly manifest as the Shekhinah, the Kavod, the Divine Radiance above the Ark, but Aaron was not to look at this. We see a reflection of this in daily synagogue life when we recite the Shema, “Hear O Israel the LORD our God the Lord is One.” Because we believe this to be a revelation of the intrinsic nature of God, it is customary that we cover our eyes while saying it. This is a reflection of the truth imbedded in this story about Aaron and the cloud of incense he was obliged to create in the Holy of Holies, to prevent his gazing upon the Presence of God. Aaron and his sons were not entitled to such an intimate look at God’s glory.
Again: there are some things we don’t know, some things we cannot know, and there is a limit to what we are entitled to know. But these limits do NOT limit our accountability to God.
We see this idea reflected also late in D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy, at the end of Moses’ life. He says this:
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV)
This to me is one of the prime principles of a Jewish epistemology, and it is in complete variance with what is normally assumed in Greco-Roman Western philosophy. Like the Greeks and Romans, Western culture to this very day seeks to draw a circle of knowledge and understanding that encompasses all of reality. In the West we honor and applaud that impulse. However, if you will step back for a moment you will realize that this impulse is exactly what “got” Adam and Eve in the Garden: the temptation to do whatever was necessary to become one’s own autonomous reference point, rather to live in a universe where our task is to honor a God who alone knows certain things. In other words, we tend to suffer from an inflated sense of self, a kind of spiritual narcissism. That is really what the Adam and Eve story is all about.
But that is at the beginning of Torah. Here toward the very end, we read again that there are some things that are solely God’s business, while it is our business and that of our children to do the will of Another. WOW! There it is! There is the heart of the worldview challenge with which the Bible confronts us.
The Fifth Life Lesson
Even in a matter as personal and in our cultural terms, “private,” as sexual behavior, God calls the shots. This is the question of authority. There is no private domain which is outside the purview of God and His authority.
We see this in Leviticus 18 which explicitly forbids certain sexual relationshps and behaviors.
This is what the Shema is getting to really: that the God of Israel is LORD over all of life—not only all that is “out there” but also all that is “in here.”
And so we live as God’s priests, drawing near to Him through our Great High Priest, Yeshua the Messiah. We do so, knowing that there are some things we do not know, cannot know, and are not entitled to know. (This, by the way is one of the take-aways from the Book of Job). We are also aware that we are a people who live under commandment and under authority, and that with this privilege comes great accountability. We know as well that God demands and deserves to be Lord over every aspect of our lives, every domain of living.
Sometimes this is difficult. But on the other hand, incense does have a pleasing aroma, doesn’t it? People who take the trouble to know God this intimately, and to serve Him so explicitly are detectable. They manifest a gravitas that we cannot quite define, but which attracts people to them. It is the gravitas of an intimate relationship with the Holy One. You might term this “the aroma of His Presence.”
Paul, a.k.a. Sha’ul haTarsi, put it this way:
But thanks be to God, who in Messiah always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Messiah to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Messiah. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)
Knowing God in this way, serving him sacrificially, drawing near to his presence, accepting the restrictions that come along with this proximity--these are exacting demands. Not everyone is up for this. But then again, there are some of us who love the smell of God's incense.
What about you?