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Vayikra/Leviticus 16:2 'And he shall not come into the Sanctuary at any time ... and he will not die ...'
Aharon is not to come into the sanctuary at any time? How is he carry out the High Priest's functions in the Most Holy Place? The word most often means 'all' and sometimes 'any' or 'each', but none of those options seem to be exactly right here. After all, the following verses are about to describe the Yom Kippur ritual, when Aharon is explicitly required to enter the Sanctuary. Perhaps a slightly paraphrastic translation would help: Aharon is not to come into the Sanctuary at just any old time, when he fancies, lest he die! The exception, the one time that Aharon must enter the Most Holy Place, is during the annual Day of Atonement. Speaking earlier, during the construction of the Tabernacle and its furniture, about the incense altar in particular,HaShem said: "Once a year Aharon shall perform purification upon its horns with blood of the sin offering of purification; purification shall be performed upon it once a year throughout the ages. It is most holy to the L-RD" (Shemot 30:10, JPS).
Targum Onkelos adds a form of the verb "to be" between the first two words: - "and not he shall be entering", to denote a continuous prohibition. It is not just in the first year of the Tabernacle's existence or even during the lifetime of the Tabernacle; this is a permanent ordinance: Aharon (or the 'current' High Priest) may not enter the Most Holy Place at will now or in the future. Rashi underlines the meaning: "if he comes when he is not allowed, he will die".
One of the primary objectives of the elaborate rituals described in this chapter and others in the Torah is to maintain the purity of the Sanctuary. If the Sanctuary becomes impure or defiled, G-d may withdraw His presence, as history was later to show happened when the prophet was told by G-d: "Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive Me far from My sanctuary?" (Ezekiel 8:6, ESV). The greatest threat to the purity of the Sanctuary obviously comes from those who are most intimately connected with it: the priests who serve there. There is a popular legend that each year the High Priest would have a rope tied around his ankle so that if he performed the Yom Kippur ritual wrongly or in a ritually unclean state and died, he could be pulled out. This legend is completely without foundation1, but serves to show the seriousness with which later Jewish tradition treated this threat to both the High Priest himself and the efficacy of his ritual actions on behalf of the people.
Our text therefore makes the point that presumption (as well as ritual uncleanliness) is incompatible with HaShem's holiness. Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were killed by fire coming forth from the L-rd, because they offered , alien or strange fire, which He had not commanded (Vayikra 10:1-2), following which He said, "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people" (v. 3, JPS). We do not know exactly what their offence was - whether the action itself was wrong, whether it was not one of the prescribed times of service, whether they were intoxicated or in some state of impurity - but the moral is clear: those who are closest to G-d are expected to hold to the highest standards of behaviour and conduct, because it is through those people that G-d receives glory. If their witness is compromised, then their presumed nearness to, or relationship with, G-d brings shame and dishonour to His name.
The priests are later commanded not to render themselves ritually unclean by contact with corpses, "Rather, they are to be holy for their G-d and not profane the name of their G-d. For they are the ones who present ADONAI with offerings made by fire, the bread of their G-d; therefore they must be holy" (Vayikra 21:6, CJB). Those who will carry the vessels and furniture from the Temple back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile are told, "Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the L-RD" (Isaiah 52:11, ESV). The admonition to the whole people concerning kosher food, "you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy" (Vayikra 11:44, JPS), is confirmed as a general commandment for all the people of G-d in this day: "as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:15-16, ESV), by the shaliach Peter. As believers, we are to be holy - not just in what we eat, but in everything that we say or do - so that we bring glory and not shame to G-d.
When Yeshua returns, to claim His bride - "in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind - yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:27, NRSV) - He comes with a purpose. Rav Sha'ul explains: "when He comes on that day to be glorified in His saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed" (2 Thessalonians 1:10, ESV); it is that we should be revealed as saints - holy ones - set apart for Him, bringing glory to Him, so that all the believers together may marvel at what He has done. John's end-times vision reports the multitude surrounding the throne who cry out praise to G-d: "All the angels stood around the throne, the elders and the four living beings; they fell face down before the throne and worshipped G-d, saying, 'Amen! Praise and glory, wisdom and thanks, honor and power and strength belong to our G-d forever and ever! Amen!'" (Revelation 7:11-12, CJB).
How then should we approach G-d, in our times of worship or times of prayer? How can we know that we will not be fried to a crisp or simply ignored? The last phrase of - Mah Tovu - the prayer at the start of the morning prayer service personalises Psalm 69:14 to ask, "As for me, may my prayer come to You, L-rd, at a time of favour. G-d, in Your great lovingkindness, answer me with Your faithful salvation" (Authorised Daily Prayer). This uncertainty is met with a resounding answer by Rav Sha'ul: "Behold, now is 'the acceptable time', behold, now is 'the day of salvation'" (2 Corinthians 6:2, ). No longer do we have to wait for one particular day; G-d is available every day, because every day is "today". The writer to the Hebrews is clear about the ground on which we stand: "Therefore, since we have received an unshakeable Kingdom, let us have grace, through which we may offer service that will please God, with reverence and fear. For indeed, 'Our God is a consuming fire!'" (Hebrews 12:28-29, CJB). The kingdom that we have received - in Messiah Yeshua - is unshakeable and G-d has given us grace in which to serve Him acceptably. Yes, our God is a consuming fire, but when we approach Him in reverence and fear (and this means awe, not timidity or fright) our service will please Him. John adds these words of Yeshua: "In fact, whatever you ask for in My name, I will do; so that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13, CJB); He promises to hear and answer our prayers so that we may glorify Him and so glorify the Father. Now that's a promise!
1 - Its earliest source is a comment in the Zohar: "a knot of rope of gold hangs from his leg, from fear perhaps he would die in the Holy of Holies, and they would need to pull him out with this rope", but this is entirely absent from the Scriptures, the earliest Jewish writings (the Mishnah and the Talmud) and the Midrash. Although the Zohar was written in the pen of Shimon bar Yochai, a 2nd centiry sage in the Land of Israel, it was almost certainly written during the 13th century in Spain.
Further Study: Isaiah 49:8; Daniel 2:44
Application: Are you worried about even speaking to G-d? Do you wonder if He will be pleased to see you today? Remember that 'now' means both this very time and this very day. Go on, what are you waiting for!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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