PARASHAH: Acharei Mot
Rabbi Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy
Shabbat, April 29, 2000
Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:1-18:30
(Note: all quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise noted)
Let’s begin with the opening blessing for the Torah:
Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-‘Olam,
asher bachar banu m’kol ha-amim,
v’natan lanu eht Torah-to.
Baruch atah YHVH, noteyn ha-Torah.
(Blessed are you, O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
you have selected us from among all the peoples,
and has given us your Torah.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.
Welcome to Parashat Acharei Mot. This particular parashah contains within it some of the single most impacting verses in the Torah. In theological studies, we call these passages "chair passages" as they have the power to change an entire theological argument, like a judge passing a sentence. In other words, sometimes a single passage can decide which direction in the proverbial fork in the road we should embark down!
The passage's most notable feature is its instructions concerning Isra'el's most solemn day of gathering: Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement. Accordingly, I will draw heavily on my previous article to that Holy Convocation. Later, I will address some of the other issues mentioned in this important Torah portion. Let's get started shall we.
In chapter 16 of our portion, we find the divine instructions for the sacred day of assembly known as Yom Kippur. HaShem has very explicit and important details that he expects Aharon the cohen gadol (high priest) to carry out. To be sure, as we shall find out, they had a very significant and far-reaching impact not just on the physical offspring of Avraham, but as the fullness of God's timetable would demonstrate, on the rest of humanity as well.
With the arrival of Yom Kippur, comes another one of the central aspects of our relationship with our Holy God: atonement. Why is atonement so important to HaShem? Apparently, ever since the incident in the Garden of Eden, mankind has carried within himself the sinful propensity of that first act of disobedience, and consequently, the sinful results as well. Our sin nature is in direct conflict with the holy nature of HaShem. As a result, we cannot fathom approaching him without first making some sort of restitution, which would satisfy HaShem’s righteous requirement. His nature demands that there be atonement for sin, for indeed, sin cannot exist in his sight.
The word kippur means atonement or expiation. Related to this word is the Hebrew word kapporet, which is what we call the cover to the Ark of the Covenant. It is a fitting connection, since the lid of the Ark (Mercy Seat) is where HaShem spoke to Moshe face to face. This was also where the blood of the atoning animal was offered once a year during Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:14-16). It is in this way, that the blood of the sacrifice "covered" the sin of the person bringing it. This type of atonement only covers the sin; it doesn’t allow it to be completely erased. In a very true way, this type of atonement was temporary. You might ask, "If HaShem knew the temporal aspect of this sacrificial system, why did he institute it in the first place? Why not just send the Messiah from the beginning, and skip all of those elaborate "middle steps"? This is a good and valid question, not entirely unlike those that I hear from most non-Jewish believers and a few Jewish folks as well.
In an attempt to explain the matter, we need to understand the plans and purposes of HaShem as expressed in the whole of the Torah. From our vantagepoint and using twentieth century hindsight, it makes perfect sense to send the Messiah to atone for our sinful nature. After all, if God left things in the hands of mankind, all men would have to atone for our own sins and consequently, all men would have to die. But what does the Torah say?
"Here is how it works: it was through one individual that sin entered into the world, and through sin, death; and in this way death passed through to the whole human race, inasmuch as everyone sinned." (Romans 5:12)
With the entrance of sin came the punishment for sin—death. So we see that HaShem is perfectly righteous when he says that the wages for our sin is death; every man does deserve to die. But here is where the mercy of HaShem comes in! He has lovingly provided a means by which mankind can redeem himself. In the period of the TaNaKH, the sacrificial system was that means! Even though it was a temporary solution, it was authentically God’s solution. No Jew living in that time period was able to circumvent this system, and remain officially within the community. To answer the question posed above, If we take HaShem seriously, them we will accept his provision—no matter what means, or how temporal that provision is! This is our first lesson in "Torah logic".
This brings us to the current situation facing every man and woman and child, Jew or non-Jew, living today: "Since the sacrificial system used in the TaNaKH was temporary, what is his means of atonement today?" The modern rabbis would have us to believe that the three ways by which we appease HaShem today are "T’shuvah" (repentance), "T’fillah" (prayer), and "Tzedekah" (righteous acts). To be sure, all of these principles are found in the teachings of the Torah! And each and every one of them has valid merit. For our God is highly interested in our repentance from sin, and he is very supportive of a prayer time, and he is enthusiastic of our righteous acts done in his name! But what does our Torah portion say?
"For the life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for yourselves; for it is the blood that makes atonement because of the life." (Leviticus 17:11)
Moving into chapter 17, we encounter one of our chair passages. This single verse of the Torah has caused no small disagreement between Christian missionaries and my people—especially the rabbis. The missionaries use this verse as a launching point by which to propagate the necessity of the atonement of Yeshua the Messiah for the forgiveness of sin. The rabbis teach that according to further insight (usually provided for them by the Talmud, a lengthy commentary on the Torah and other Jewish matters, compiled during the centuries following the 70 C.E. destruction of the temple), this verse is not exclusively addressing the issue of sin atonement. As a Messianic rabbi, I have studied the arguments and responses of both camps, and I’m not ashamed to provide an authoritative answer.
First of all, the rabbis have a somewhat valid point to make; the Torah does address the issue of atonement in other sections. Likewise, HaShem did use the blood of animals in other types of sacrificial requirements, where sin is not the primary issue. But what the rabbis seem to misunderstand, is that the above quoted verse was not intended to confuse the average reader! Citing the rules of standard grammatical-historical exegesis: When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise. In other words, did the average unlearned reader, living in the time period of the TaNaKH, understand what HaShem was asking of him? Of course he did. If he did not, I imagine we would have read about the difference in interpretation somewhere else in the Torah. But our verse here in Leviticus contains little or no ambiguity. The immediate recipients of the context of chapter 17 are as given: to Moshe (vs. 1), to Aharon and his sons (vs. 1), to 'Am Isra'el (vs. 1), and finally someone from the community of Isra'el or one of the foreigners living with you (vs. 8, 10). The chapter even leaves off addressing "anyone" in verse 15.
Were all of these individuals learned people? Did they study in the most brilliant theological schools of their day? Was HaShem secretly cloaking this important information in mystery only to be understood by the future rabbis and Torah teachers of the people of Isra'el? I am not reluctant to place the blame on over-examination. Because of this, we sometimes miss the simple explanation that the Torah is trying to teach us. To use modern language "We miss the forest for the trees!" Another rather obvious cause for the disagreement here is the fact that most non-Messianic rabbis don’t consider the New Covenant Scriptures authoritative, and therefore, they usually ignore it’s teaching. Woe unto those unfaithful teachers during the coming day of reckoning (Yom haDin)!
But the Torah, as revealed by the Messiah and his first century followers, is authoritative concerning this issue, so it is there that we will settle the issue:
"But God demonstrated his own love for us in that the Messiah died on our behalf while we were still sinners. Therefore, since we have now come to be considered righteous by means of his bloody sacrificial death, how much more will we be delivered through him from the anger of God’s judgement!"
Yeshua has now become the means by which all men must satisfy the righteous atoning requirement of the Holy One! This type of atonement is not just a covering! Our sins are not merely covered for the year, only to be remembered the next year at Yom Kippur. This type of atonement is a permanent one! What does the Torah say?
"No longer will any of them teach his fellow community member or his brother, ‘Know ADONAI’; for all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest; because I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more."(Jeremiah 31:34)
Even righteous King David recognized the mercy of a God who covers the transgressors’ sin, in chapter thirty-two of the book of Psalms. And this is also where we see a good example of the validity and necessity of the system used during those days. But the covenant spoken about by the prophet Jeremiah, is surely a superior system. When HaShem says that he will remember our sins no more, that’s something to rejoice about! Why would anyone want to attempt to revert back to the former system, if it were possible? Unfortunately, today, many of my brothers according to the flesh are doing something similar to this. When a person rejects Yeshua HaMashiach as the final atonement for their sin, they are really rejecting the One who sent the Messiah in the first place! In other words, to reject Yeshua is to reject HaShem! This is where the corporate blindness of my people lies.
The second important aspect of the sending of Yeshua at the appointed time has to do with order. HaShem has a perfect plan for everything. According to the purpose of God, sin had to run it’s course, until the time for sending the Messiah into the world came. Yeshua therefore demonstrated his obedience to the Father by surrendering his life as a sacrifice only when the time set by his Father was perfect. Not sooner. Not later. We must accept this Biblical truth and live by it. In a way, you could say that if Messiah Yeshua had provided himself for atonement at a much earlier time, then, because of community dynamics, the majority of Am Yisra’el would have accepted him, yet the majority of the surrounding Gentile Nations would have missed out. Of course this is speculative, yet it does contain an element of truth. Read Romans chapter eleven, specifically verse twenty-five sometime, and you’ll notice that the Torah is hinting at this very aspect!
Moving on into chapter 18, we find our second chair passage.
"You are to observe my laws and rulings; if a person does them, he will have life through them; I am ADONAI." (Leviticus 18:5)
A few years ago I had the unique opportunity of engaging in a lengthy debate with a non-Messianic rabbi over the important implications behind this single verse. Since the debate was via the medium of e-mail, I have decided to share a selected portion with you here in this commentary. A word of caution: my apologetics (Scriptural defensive reasoning) were aimed at the gross error that exists within the scholarship of the Jewish learned. My comments were intended to expose that error in an effort to showcase the Truth of the Torah to a man whose eyes were blinded by defensive (not passive) unbelief, as well as a man bent on ill-feelings towards the Christian community of which he believes is in serious disobedience to the Torah of the very God that they claim to serve. My comments should not be understood as being applied to the Jewish people as a whole, nor am I singling out any particular Christian group. Truth cuts to the heart of the issue for those who walk in disobedience. To use modern vernacular "If the shoe fits….then wear it!"
I have not posted any of his comments, as I do not permission to do so. Mixing only my own comments with those of noted author and translator David H. Stern, as found in his Jewish New Testament Commentary, I wrote:
"Moshe spoke of the righteousness that is grounded in trust, in Vayikra 18:5, "That the person who does these things will attain life through them." Rashi (quoting the Sifra) comments: "It refers to the world to come; for if you say it refers to this world, doesn't everyone die sooner or later?" I understand the Torah then to be talking about eternal life.
"That many Christians don't believe that the Torah teaches eternal life through the Teachings of the Mitzvot is irrelevant! If they have made a serious error in their theology, they must answer to HaShem for misunderstanding His Torah. Why do we become so "caught up in the middle" over false teaching? Is it because of the fence that we have built around Torah, that we defend it so fervently? In any case, they are wrong about Torah.... it is to be kept, not disregarded. It is the goal of the Torah to lead its followers to the righteousness grounded in trust. But have you ever stopped to think that they (the minim) may have understood a central part that our people, the Jewish community, miss?
"The lesson in logic goes like this: the person who practices "the righteousness grounded in the Torah will necessarily have the trust in Yeshua the Messiah that the B'rit Chadashah proclaims. Why? Because legalism is the exact opposite of trust! The heresy of legalism, when applied to the Torah, says that anyone who does these things, that is, anyone who mechanically follows the rules for Shabbat, kashrut, etc., will attain life through them, will be saved, will enter the Kingdom of HaShem, will obtain eternal life. No need to trust HaShem, just obey the rules! The problem with this simplistic ladder to Heaven is that legalism conveniently ignores the "rule" that trust must underlie all rule-following which HaShem finds acceptable. But trust necessarily converts mere rule-following into something altogether different, in fact, into its opposite, genuine faithfulness to HaShem. Therefore, "legalistic obedience to Torah commands" (that is, "works of the Law") is actually disobedience to the Torah!
"As a Jew, who follows the Torah as given by Him, through Moshe Rabbenu, I challenge you once again: legalism - that is, legalistic obedience to Torah commands - is disobedience to the Torah! One could be obeying every single mitzvah (except, by assumption, the mitzvah of trust), but if these things are being done without heartfelt trust in the God who is there, the only God there is, the God who sent his Son Yeshua to be the atonement for sin, then all this outward "obedience" is hateful to HaShem (Yesha'yahu 1:14), and the person doing it, the legalist, "lives under a curse," because he is not "doing everything written in the Scroll of the Torah" (D'varim 27:26).
"Now here's the sad truth! The evidence that non-Messianic Jews "have not submitted themselves to HaShem's way of making people righteous", which itself shows that their "zeal for HaShem" is "not based on correct understanding", is that they have not grasped the central point of the Torah and acted on it. Had they seen that trust in HaShem - as opposed to self-effort, legalism, and mechanical obedience to the rules - is the route to the righteousness which the Torah itself not only requires but offers, then they would see that, "the goal at which the Torah aims is [acknowledging and trusting in] the Messiah, who offers [on the ground of this trusting the very] righteousness (they are seeking). They would see that the righteousness, which the Torah offers, is offered through him and only through him. They would also see that he offers it to everyone who trusts - to them and to the Goyim as well!"
The thrust of this week's commentary has been presented in an effort to educate the two camps, both Jews and Gentile Christians. Many Messianic as well as non-Messianic Jews still struggle with the intended meaning of "what it means to be a new creation in Messiah, walking out his Torah in our lives"; moreover, many non-Jewish Christians struggle with this issue as well. By default, the world does not struggle with these issues since it has not accepted HaShem on his grounds in the first place.
While my heart reaches out to non-Jewish believers with these important instructions concerning the Torah of HaShem, it is my desire to make a heartfelt plea to the Jewish Community to consider accepting HaShem on his terms alone! This is our second lesson in "Torah-logic": if HaShem renews the terms of his original covenant, we as partners must agree with his improved establishment, especially since it was faithlessness on our part that necessitated the renewal! Apart from being superior to the sacrificial system because of it’s lasting impact, Yeshua’s atonement also brought about the power to maintain a change of heart. To be sure, the famous passage quoted from Jeremiah contains in it, a promise from HaShem to put the Torah in the inward parts of the people—i.e. on the heart. This means a change in the spiritual makeup of the individual. A change that transforms the sinner into the status of righteous heir! Now because of Yeshua’s death, HaShem no longer considers death as our wage (Romans 8:1)! Even if not corporately, each individual Jewish person can now proclaim: Our Yom Kippur has come! Our final Day of Atonement has already arrived! Our effectual sacrifice has been offered once and for all!
The closing blessing is as follows:
Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-‘Olam,
asher natan lanu Toraht-emet,
v’chay-yeh o’lam nata-b’tochenu.
Baruch atah YHVH, noteyn ha-Torah.
(Blessed are you O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
you have given us your Torah of truth,
and has planted everlasting life within our midst.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.
Rabbi Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy