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Vayikra/Leviticus 9:23 And Moshe and Aharon came to the tent of meeting and they went out and they blessed the people; and the glory of the L-rd appeared to all the people.
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This verse is in the middle of a three-chapter block of narrative in the book of Vayikra - in fact, the only narrative in the whole of the twenty seven chapters and ten parashiyot - recording the inauguration of Aharon as the first High Priest, Cohen Gadol of Israel. In chapter 8, Moshe anoints Aharon and his sons for their service; chapter 9 relates the performance of Aharon's first set of ritual; and chapter 10 tells what happened when Aharon's two elder sons offer service that was not commanded. Our text is the last verse in the second aliyah, and comes after Aharon has offered all the sacrifices in the prescribed way and then blessed the people. At the start of this episode, the eighth day after the Tabernacle has been set up and Aharon anointed, Moshe calls Aharon forward to take over from him and assume the priesthood. He tells Aharon to instruct the people what they should bring for their offering and to tell them that "today the L-RD will appear to you" (Vayikra 9:4, NJPS). When everything has been got ready and the whole community is standing before the Lord, Moshe tells everyone, "This is what the L-RD has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the L-RD may appear to you" (v. 6, NJPS).
Aharon offers the sin offering and the burnt offering for to atone for himself (vv. 8-14) and then likewise for the people (vv. 15-21). He raises his hands towards the people and blesses them, then steps back or down (the text isn't exactly clear which it means) from making the offerings (v. 22). There might or might not be a pause at this point - the text doesn't give us any indication either way - as if everyone was waiting for something to happen, as if something was expected, but as nothing does Moshe and Aharon go into the Tent of Meeting, leaving the people standing there wondering what they missed or whether they should disperse to their tents. Shortly afterwards, and the text gives us no indication how long they are inside the Tent of Meeting, Moshe and Aharon re-emerge, bless the people for the second time, and the glory ofHaShem appears. Was this the way the choreography was supposed to work or had someone not read the script correctly? What were Moshe and Aharon doing in the Tent of Meeting and why then, of all times, to rush off and do it? Gunther Plaut points out that "no reason for this is given by Scripture." Baruch Levine agrees: "It is unclear why Moshe and Aharon entered the Tent at this time." Sifra offers two plausible explanations: either Moshe went in with Aharon to show him how to perform the incense offering; or, they went in together to pray for the speedy manifestation of G-d's presence.
RabbiHirsch's reasoning goes like this: "The Sanctuary had been consecrated, the priests and people had duly brought the offerings, as a result of which, it had been promised that a visible sign would be given as a sealing of the bond that if the People made a home for the Torah of G-d He would dwell in their midst. But not immediately on the completion of the offerings did the Glory of G-d appear. Had it done so, it might have strengthened the pagan idea that there was some secret power in the offerings themselves that had the magic power to work on the god, and by sheer physical means to force or bring about a theophany." In other words, if HaShem had shown His hand immediately, then people might have got the idea that the offerings had in some way compelled Him to appear. As if offering this, that, and the other, in that order and in that way, might cast some kind of spell over God so that He had no choice but to turn up and produce a revelation. That would imply that the people were in control of G-d or could at least manipulate Him to do some of what they wanted. So there was a pause, to show that G-d was independent of the offerings, that He shows His glory because He wants to, when He wants to.
Early Jewish sources (Torat Kohanim, Miluim 1:19) report that Aharon was distressed at the end of the formal ritual because G-d did not appeared immediately as Aharon and the people expected. Aharon assumes that he must have got something wrong and that "the Holy One, Blessed is He, has become angry with me." Not only, he assumes, must he have made some kind of mistake during the offering process, so displeasing G-d, but he has also let the people down by depriving them of their opportunity to see and have G-d dwell in their midst as He had promised to do. The source goes on, "then Moshe entered into the Tent of Meeting with him and they prayed for mercy and the Shechinah descended to Israel." TheRashbam adds that "they went inside to pray that the fire would come down." Ibn Ezra is less convinced, saying only, "perhaps they went inside the Tent to pray for the fire to come forth." Gordon Wenham comments that "this was the place where G-d usually spoke to Moshe. So it seems probable that they went in at this time to commune with G-d, and to pray that He would fulfill His promise to appear in glory. Their conviction that G-d intended to bless His people was strengthened by their time of communion, and emerging they jointly blessed the people. Their words were then miraculously underwritten by the appearance of the glory of G-d."1
DonAbravanel looks at some of the times in the Hebrew Scriptures when fire comes from heaven to consume a sacrifice. He points out that "the same thing happens at the dedication of Solomon's Temple - 'When Solomon finished praying, fire descended from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the L-RD filled the House' (2 Chronicles 7:1, NJPS)". Solomon has built the Temple and brought in all the consecrated things that David his father had prepared; the ark has been carried in and a cloud fills the Temple so that the priests cannot stand. Then Solomon prays for G-d to always hear the prayers of His people and without being explicitly asked, when he finishes, fire comes. Abravanel's second example is the prophet Elijah: when he sets the terms for his contest with the priests of Ba'al, "Elijah says explicitly that 'the god who responds with fire, that one is G-d" (1 Kings 18:24, NJPS)'". After waiting all day, Elijah moves the contest to its climax and after he asks, "Let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your bidding" (v. 36, NJPS), fire duly falls: "fire from the L-RD descended and consumed the burnt offering" (v. 38, NJPS). Both were mighty signs: a revelation of G-d's presence and existence, and a powerful endorsement of the people involved.
Nechama Leibowitz points to the verse, "No signs appear for us; there is no longer any prophet; no one among us knows for how long" (Psalm 74:9, NJPS) from a psalm attributed to Asaph. The date of writing is unknown and may come from a time after the written prophets have ended as the descendants of Asaph were appointed as musicians in the Temple by King David. Leibowitz writes that "Asaph's lament is shared by the subsequent generations, to whom the nature of prophecy and revelation remains a mystery." We might ask ourselves today what we understand about the nature of prophecy and revelation and why no signs appear for us.
Moshe and Aharon had just completed, exactly as instructed - "as the L-rd has commanded" (Vayikra 9:7), "as the L-rd had commanded Moshe" (v. 10), "as the judgement" (v. 16), "as Moshe had commanded" (v. 21) - the first official public service at the Tabernacle. They and the people are expecting HaShem to endorse the ritual and Aharon as the officiating High Priest with some kind of sign or demonstration of His presence, an 'appearance'. But nothing happens. Instead Moshe and Aharon go into the Tent of Meeting, leaving the congregation high and dry. Have you ever been in a service where that has happened? The minister assures the congregation that today they will hear from the L-rd; the choir sings, the band plays, everyone works up to a crescendo during the time of worship and nothing happens. Then the minister and the worship leader rush off into the vestry leaving everyone else hanging in mid-air. No, perhaps not - we are better at stage management these days.
But the fact remains: we have expectations about what makes a good service. We know what it feels like when it 'works'. The charismatics among us recognise that moment when a word will be brought forward; the evangelicals appreciate a powerful and stimulating piece of gospel exegesis; the musicians agree upon exactly one more repeat of that chorus; and the intercessors manage to stretch the prayer time by just a few extra moments to cover some urgent matter. We all know what we expect G-d to do during services, how we interpret His promises - "I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20), "where two or three are gathered" (Matthew 18:20), "gathered with one accord" (Acts 2:1) - and how we measure whether He did or didn't do that. We are disappointed when we think we have done our best, given everything we have, followed our instructions - be that liturgy, tradition or the leading of the Spirit - perfectly and we didn't get the response we expected. Was it our fault, did we do something wrong, or did He just not show up? Even though G-d is incredibly gracious and oftentimes does favour us with His presence, sometimes - just like Moshe and Aharon - we have to specifically pray that He will come and invite Him, rather than simply assuming that if we follow the formula He will automatically be there.
We cannot presume upon G-d. We dare not do just what we want, sing the songs we like, hear some comfortable Scripture and a inspiring motivational talk and expect that G-d will simply turn up at the end and bless us with a sweet emotional buzz. We must be prepared to find out what He wants and then - whatever it is - offer that on a sacrificial basis and then don't give up crying out to Him for mercy and grace until He comes in His power and glory, even if it takes all day.
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), page 150.
Further Study: 1 Chronicles 21:18-26; Ezekiel 7:23-27; Acts 4:23-31
Application: Do you ever turn up for services and just assume that G-d will be there too without asking Him? Perhaps you should put in a request before the next service you attend. Remind Him how desperately you need Him!
Comment - 06:03 24Mar19 Judith Chesney: That was wonderfully encouraging thank you for reminding us of necessity of prayer and expectation which is following loving worship.If we draw near to Him He will draw near to us. His touch is so real and heals the very fibre of our being. Such Love draws us and binds us to Him. The author of life. I am gratefully reminded of His all enveloping love.
Comment - 10:55 26Mar19 Ruth Harvey: Challenging! What struck me was the importance of coming into His Presence in the right way. Wrong fire, wrong transporting of the ark cost people's lives. David would not give to the Lord something that cost him nothing and in Acts they repented and acknowledged the sins of the people. How often in our services do we begin our worship without exalting God, songs that have 'us' in the centre?
Comment - 09:56 31Mar19 Brian and Anne Nelson: This Parasha reminded me of who our Almighty G-d is; He is The Holy G-d. We must always come into His Presence with reference and awe.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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