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Vayikra/Leviticus 10:10 ... and to separate between the holy and the profane and between the impure and the pure ...
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Our text comes from a short set of verses (Vayikra 10:9-11) that provide the only direct speech fromHaShem to Aharon in the Book of Vaykira. Thought by many rabbinic commentators to provide the reason for the death of Aharon's two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu just a few verses earlier, they prohibit priests from consuming any but the smallest amounts of alcohol when on duty and then outline the two areas that would be most affected by intoxication: arbitration (v. 10) and teaching (v. 11). The prophets report what happens when these regulations are ignored: "Priest and prophet are muddled by liquor; they are confused by wine, they are dazed by liquor; they are muddled in their visions, they stumble in judgment" (Isaiah 28:7, NJPS). The Ralbag is clear that "no-one, priest or ordinary Israelite ought to teach when he is drunk. But the priests are specifically forbidden to do so because a priest who makes a mistake in teaching can do much more damage." For those who are supposed to be the arbiters of righteousness and holiness among the Israelites and for ensuring accurate teaching, propagation and observance of the Torah - in particular its rules for maintaining the distance and distinction between the holy and the profane, between the ritually pure or clean and that which is not - this is a disaster. Samuel Balentine affirms that "the custodians of these boundaries, the ones specially charged with the responsibility for securing the proper intersections between the holy and the common, are the priests."1
Things that are 'holy' are set apart, dedicated or consecrated, for sacred use; things that are 'profane' live in the normal world of every day life. Purity or impurity is a status of ritual purity or contamination that permits or prohibits entry into the sanctuary or participation in the service of G-d. Something that is pure may become holy; something that is impure may not, without purification. Being profane is ritually neutral; a domestic animal, that may be suitable for sacrifice if it is ritually pure, is holy if so designated, but is otherwise profane. Once brought into the sanctuary, even if it subsequently becomes impure, it can never return to the status of profane or common. Entry into the sanctuary is forbidden, under penalty of destruction, for anything or anyone that is ritually impure. Tamar Kamionkowski explains that, "the goal of distinguishing between holy and common, between pure and impure, and of teaching Israel about these matters is to keep holiness and impurity from coming into contact."2 The Torah establishes the permanence of the role - "This is a law for all time throughout the ages" (Vayikra 10:9, NJPS) - and the prophets confirm its intended operation in the future: "They shall declare to My people what is sacred and what is profane, and inform them what is clean and what is unclean" (Ezekiel 4:23, NJPS).
Our text has just one verb, - the Hif'il infinitive from the root (Davidson). David Clines lists the meanings: separate, make a separation, distinguish, typically between one thing and another.3 Significantly, the verb is used in the first creation account as God makes the first few decisive steps in turning chaos into order: "G-d separated the light from the darkness" (B'resheet 1:4, NJPS), "G-d said, 'Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water'" (v. 6, NJPS), "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night" (v. 14, NJPS). Richard Elliott Friedman writes that "Leviticus is concerned with orderliness. This orderliness is reminiscent of the creation account in Genesis 1. There are key parallels of wording especially in the term for distinction. As G-d creates by making distinctions, expressed in divine speech, in Genesis, so the function of the priesthood is described in Leviticus as 'to separate between the holy and the common.'"
Baruch Levine shows how the grammar of our text strengthens the force of HaShem's role assignment to Aharon and his descendants: "Verses 10 and 11 begin with infinitives, literally 'to distinguish' and 'to teach', but the force of these infinitives is imperative, as the translation indicates: 'for you must distinguish ... for you must teach ...' (NJPS)." If G-d's people are to be able to enter His presence, these distinctions must endure and someone must continue to do that job. But is it only about things and people?Ibn Ezra broadens the scope by sharing that "the high priest must be able to distinguish between a place that is holy and one that is profane. It may refer as well to distinguishing between a time that is holy and one that is profane." So not only things, but places and times all need to be assessed to see if they are holy. Each week at the start of Shabbat, after we have lit the candles and declare that it is now Shabbat, we also declare that we have entered holy time by making kiddush, the blessing over grape juice, as Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: "The quality of holiness is not in the grain of matter. It is a preciousness bestowed upon things by an act of consecration and persisting in relation to G-d."4
We should notice too that the ceremony that brings Shabbat to an end, Havdalah, is yet another form of the same verb from our text. Havdalah, when we light the first fire of the working week, one hour after sunset on a Saturday evening, is an act of separation; the drawing of a line that marks the end of Shabbat and the start of the week. It is a transition from the holy to the profane, from the sacred time of Shabbat to the common or ordinary time of the week. We say the blessing together:
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who distinguishes between sacred and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of work. Blessed are You, L-rd, who distinguishes between sacred and secular. ( Sacks, Authorised Daily Prayer, 611).
Now let's go back for a moment to the priests in ancient Israel. Balentine comments, "When they 'distinguish' the boundaries between G-d and the world in which G-d desires to be present and active, they participate in and extend the primordial acts by which G-d 'distinguished' or 'separated' the basic elements of the created order. In sum, the priests' stewardship of the ritual boundaries identified in Leviticus 10:10 images G-d's creation and nurture of a world designed to be 'very good'."5 The words or judgements of the priests have a creative effect as a shadow of G-d's words of creation. When the priest declares something 'holy', it is holy. Their speech act, in the ears of those seeking a judgement, creates a reality and when the seeker acts on that judgement - for example, using a particular animal for a sacrifice - in faith, we have to assume that G-d, who sees the heart, accepts that sacrifice as if the judgement is correct, even if on occasion it might not be. That is why alcohol is not permitted to priests who are "on duty", because as RabbiHirsch penetratingly observes: "Only the clear and comprehending mind, keeping everything in its right proportion and its right place, is able to guide our steps and decide for us the what is the right way to carry out the dictates of G-d's Torah. The Jewish teacher of the Torah must, all his life, remain the foremost obedient pupil of the Torah."
According to John Hartley, "a similar standard is set forth in the NT. Believers are to be alert, faithful and attentive to prayers (Ephesians 6:18, 1 Peter 1:14, 4:7, 1 Timothy 2:8). Paul exhorts 'Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit' (Ephesians 5:18, ESV) in order to minister to one another with songs of praise (vv. 19-20) Likewise the leaders of the church, such as bishops and deacons must be temperate (1 Timothy 3:2-33, 8)."6
How are we, as members of Yeshua's priesthood, to partake in this function of separating or distinguishing between holy and common, between pure and impure? What is that we are called to do to operate in that priestly role towards the world? Firstly, but not judging or being judgemental. Yeshua clearly told the disciples, "Don't judge, so that you won't be judged" (Matthew 7:1, CJB). The role of judging - declaring a verdict and assigning a sentence or penalty - belongs to those who are appointed judges, either in the judiciary or as part of a process within a dispute among believers. Equally clearly, a few verses later as part of the same teaching, Yeshua warns the disciples about false prophets and tells them that they "will recognize them by their fruit" (v. 16, CJB). He then talks about good and bad trees and the fruit they produce; people are like tree, He says, and you can distinguish between them on the basis of their fruit: "you will recognize them by their fruit" (v. 20, CJB).
Making sober decisions - discernment or separation - about the rightness or wrongness (read: holiness or purity) of actions, attitudes or words, in prayer, from the Scriptures and by the power of the Spirit within us, on behalf of those for whom we are responsible (for example, our families or our congregations) is the way we share in G-d's work of creation: producing order out of chaos. This is how we exercise our role as priests in the body of Messiah.
1. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 86.
2. - S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Leviticus, Wisdom Commentaries, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), 74.
3. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 41.
4. - Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), page 79.
5. - Balentine, page 86.
6. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 102.
Further Study: Matthew 13:47-50; Romans 8:35-39; Acts 13:46-47
Application: Are you equipped to exercise the priestly role of separating and discerning, within your local expression of the Body of Messiah? Call the Chief Education Officer today and ask Him to sign you up for the study and training you need to fulfill that role in the way He intends!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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