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B'Midbar/Numbers 9:7 We are impure on account of a man's corpse. Why will we be diminished for not offering the L-rd's offering
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WhenHaShem tells Moshe to instruct the Israelites to celebrate Pesach for the second time, one year after the first Pesach sacrifice in Egypt, some men come to him and complain that they have been unjustly excluded from bringing the offering like everyone else, because they are unclean with , ritual impurity from touching a dead body. The early rabbis offered three possible reasons why they were unclean in this way: they might have been those carrying the coffin of Yosef, whose bones were being carried up from Egypt for re-interment in the Land, they might have been Mishael and Ekzafan, the cousins of Aharon who had buried Nadab and Abihu, or simply that they had taken care of burying someone who had no relatives to bury him (Sifrei 68). In all three cases, the men would have been under Moshe's orders or performing a commandment, so unclean in a worthy cause - why were they being excluded from Pesach?
Jacob Milgrom suggests that the men's fear is that "they would be excluded from the national festival as if they were foreigners". The verb - the Ni'fil 1cp prefix form of the root , to take away, detract, withhold - here "we will be diminished" or possibly "we will be lessened". Gunther Plaut explains that the men might be "reduced in status. Participation in the Passover sacrifice confirms one's full membership in the people of Israel." The instruction, "This is the law of the passover offering: No foreigner shall eat of it" (Shemot 12:43, JPS) excludes foreigners, while "But no uncircumcised person may eat of it" (v. 48, JPS). These men were neither foreigners nor uncircumcised; why should they be treated as such or have people think that they were?
Rashi suggests that Moshe would have simply answered, "Sacrifices may not be offered by one who is impure", while Chizkuni would have the men reply, "Why must we be debarred - we ate the offering in Egypt last year when we were unclean". Milgrom provides a response to that by explaining that there is a significant difference in status between the first celebration of Passover in Egypt - when the Pesach sacrifice was killed by each family, its blood was daubed on the doorposts and lintels and the carcass roasted whole over the fire - and this second commemoration one year later: "the phrase 'the L-rd's offering' implies that this second Passover offering and all subsequent ones, in distinction to the first in Egypt, was really a formal sacrifice in which the blood and suet of the animal were offered on the authorised sanctuary altar" by the designated priests. The first Pesach was offered by everyone, in their families, in whatever state of ritual purity - probably none - they had. Now the Tabernacle, the priesthood and the purity laws existed and so had to be obeyed.
It is important to note that becoming unclean is not a sin, on most occasions for most people, unless specifically forbidden. On some occasions, it is explicitly required. The man who burns the carcass of the red heifer and the priest who monitors the ritual become unclean by so doing (B'Midbar 19:7-8); the man who sprinkles the water for impurity on the person that is impure to cleanse him, himself becomes unclean in the process (v. 21). While the priests are told not to make themselves unclean by touching dead bodies other than their immediate family, and the High Priest is not even allowed to become unclean for the closest of relatives, if the High Priest woke up in bed one morning to find that his wife had died during the night, he would be unclean but he would not have sinned since he did not do anything. On the other hand, being unclean does have consequences: unclean priests are not allowed to eat their portions of the offerings, people who were unclean could not bring offerings, and the unclean state passed from person to person by touch.
Today, since there is no Temple and no consecrated priesthood to bring offerings or supervise the process of the red heifer (of which there is also no available example) to produce the water for impurity, every Jewish person is in a perpetual state of ritual impurity. All El Al flights out of Ben Gurion airport take a particular flight path while they are close to the ground so that the 'planes don't fly over a cemetery, thus allowing cohanim to board the flight. Because there is no Temple at which to slaughter the Pesach offering, Passover seders no longer include the step of eating the Pesach sacrifice itself1, so all Jews can celebrate Passover and invite Gentiles to participate. The Rabbis determined long ago that the festival of Matzah - Unleavened Bread - can be observed by anyone, ritually clean or unclean, since there is no sacrifice to bring or eat and anyone can purge leaven from their houses and eat matzah.
The plight of the men in our text and their not unreasonable fear of having their reputation or standing within the community damaged because they were unable to bring their Pesach offerings as the rest of the Sons of Israel, points to another issue that is still very pertinent today. They were afraid of other people's opinions or judgement - the community looking down on them or thinking they had done something wrong. Peer pressure, long recognised as one of the major causes of herd mentality among teenagers (clothing, footwear, speech, sexual activity and so on), affects most people throughout their whole lives, however reluctant they are to admit it. Even within the Body of Messiah there is significant pressure on believers, from the newest to the most mature, to follow the group and do or say what everyone else is doing. Do you, for example, feel obliged to take communion even on the odd occasion when you might prefer not to, because everyone else will see? Have you ever stood up or gone to the front in response to some altar call or invitation because everyone else in the row has, even if you didn't feel that it was for you?
There is too, in our original text, a concern that the L-rd might be displeased with the men for being unable to bring the Pesach sacrifice with everyone else, because they were unclean from performing another duty. Were they letting HaShem down at that time? This is a question of perspective that still challenges believers today: you were due to share your testimony at the evening service, but one of the women in your house-group rang in the afternoon to say that her husband had been taken into hospital with a stroke and you spent the rest of the day getting her in to visit him and make arrangements with the medical staff; you were cooking for the men's breakfast this morning, but when you got up you found your tear-stained daughter crying in the kitchen because she's just broken up with her long-term boyfriend and you cancelled the morning to spend time with her. There are always conflicting demands on our time and ability to serve G-d, our family and friends. G-d knows and understand this; after all, He has allowed them to present in the same time space. He expects us quickly to pray and then take the appropriate decision - to service the most urgent or critical need - and, provided we don't do that for our own selfish motives, we have not let Him down or disobeyed Him.
In the case of these men, ritually unclean because of their responsibilities to someone who died, G-d hears their request and provides the opportunity to celebrate Passover and bring their Pesach offering one month later, on the fourteenth day of the second month (B'Midbar 9:10-11), although they do have to observe the festival of Matzah now. In our case, similarly, G-d takes care of whatever has to be put down in order to service a higher priority interrupt: either someone else in the Body of Messiah will pick it up and cover for us or, if it something that we have to do, then He will provide another time on another occasion when we can do it. Just as neither Moshe nor HaShem question or rebuke the men in the desert - proof that no offence or sin has been committed - so there is no stigma or sin today before the L-rd in having to arbitrate between commitments today; neither should there be between fellow believers!
1. - Most Jewish traditions also forbid the eating of lamb at a Passover meal to avoid any suspicion that someone might have tried to offer a Pesach sacrifice without the Temple or a consecrated priest.
Further Study: 2 Chronicles 30:17-20; Colossians 3:11
Application: Have you recently had to reschedule a commitment because of an urgent crisis or family issue and feel guilty before the L-rd for having done so? If so, then now is the time to put it down and move on. G-d knew all about it before it happened and you have not let Him down. Just ask Him for another opportunity to do it and the grace to make it this time!
Comment - 24May13 11:26 Gershom Menashe: Interesting and it makes me gain more about the parasha ...
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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