And G-d said to Moses: … [a Kohen] shall not contaminate himself [through contact with] the dead of his people. Except for his closest kin–his mother, father, son, daughter or brother. Or for his virgin sister… who has not married a man–for her, he should contaminate himself…
But the Kohen Gadol, the greater of his brethren… may not come in contact with any dead; [even] for his father or mother, he may not contaminate himself.
A heretic once asked Rabbi Avahu: “Your G-d is a Kohen; so in what did He immerse Himself after He buried Moses?” Replied Rabbi Avahu: “He immersed in fire.”
-Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a
But one thing remains unresolved: surely G-d is no ordinary Kohen, but a Kohen Gadol, whose greater holiness proscribes any exposure to impurity, even for the sake of his closest relatives. How, then, could G-d “contaminate” Himself, even for His “children” or His “sister”?
Put another way: if, in His relationship with us, G-d assumes the role of an ordinary Kohen, whose lesser holiness allows him contact with impurity for the sake of “Israel, His kin,” G-d certainly transcends this role, possessing also the inviolable sanctity of the Kohen Gadol.
I couldn’t help but think, not only of the crucifixion and death of Jesus, but of his role as High Priest in the Court of Heaven. One role seems inconsistent with the other, because how can the High Priest cleanse himself when he has not only touched the dead, but has been the dead person? It’s a mystery I choose not to pursue because, in all likelihood, it cannot be pursued from the mortal realm, but then again, Rabbi Tauber also said this of God as the High Priest:
As “Kohen Gadol,” G-d effects all without being affected, pervading the lowliest tiers of His creation without being tainted by their deficiencies. Yet G-d chooses to also assume the more vulnerable holiness of the divine “ordinary Kohen” (which translates, on the human level, into the ordinary Kohen’s permission to contaminate himself in certain circumstances): to contaminate Himself by His burial of Moses, to suffer along with His people, to bloody Himself in the process of extracting them from exile. He wants us to know that He is not only there with us wherever we are, but that He also subjects Himself to everything that we are subject to.
At the same time, He is also there with us as “Kohen Gadol”: transcending it all, and empowering us to also attain something of His inviolable sanctity.
I know that I’m reading far more into this than Rabbi Tauber would ever have intended, but again, we see Jesus as both mortal man and Divine High Priest of Heaven. As “Kohen Gadol,” the Messiah transcends our world in inviolable sanctity, but as the teacher who walked among his people Israel, he pervaded “the lowliest tiers of His creation without being tainted by their deficiencies.”
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
–2 Corinthians 5:21
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
–1 Peter 2:22
Rabbi Tauber also says this, as was quoted above.
…transcending it all, and empowering us to also attain something of His inviolable sanctity.
Jesus lived among human flesh as human flesh and yet did not sin. And he died and was resurrected and in glory, sits at the right hand of the Father. And he is our High Priest in the Heavenly Sanctuary who never sinned and yet who can sympathize with our human weaknesses.
And if I can borrow from Rabbi Tauber, by Messiah’s holiness and his example to us, we can aspire to become better than who we are, as he has empowered us to “also attain something of His inviolable sanctity.” How like Paul’s comment from 2 Corinthians 5:21 that “we might become the righteousness of God” is the commentary from the Rabbi?
Although “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23), it is also said, “but 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). Thus holiness is something to be acquired by man, not purely through our own efforts but through faith, and yet not only through faith, but through our efforts.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Jesus the man. Jesus the Messiah. Jesus the Priest. Jesus the Divine. It’s hard to know how to relate to him. Most Christians prefer to address Jesus as a close friend and companion, a “bosom buddy,” even a cuddly comforter. Yet in Revelation 1:17 when John, who had walked with Jesus in this world, saw him in the Heavenly realm, he ” fell at his feet as though dead.”
God is at once Almighty in the ultimate, cosmic, radically One sense, and also close to His people, acting tenderly toward us, as a Father, as a husband, as a brother:
It would therefore follow that G-d, who ascribes to Himself the Halachic status of a Kohen (see Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a) is precluded by Torah law from “contaminating” Himself through contact with the impurities of mortality. Yet the Torah tells us that G-d Himself buried Moses, and the Talmud discusses how He subsquently purified Himself in a “pool of fire.” Our sages explain: The people of Israel are “G-d’s children”; Moses is thus one of G-d’s “closest kin,” for whom a Kohen is permitted–indeed obligated–to become tameh.
Rabbi Tauber comments from a Talmudic and mystic sense, so we probably can’t directly apply his words to our discussion on Jesus, but his imagery is so wonderfully kind, gentle, and intimate, that it’s difficult to resist such an “inappropriate” application.
For we too have been dead in our sins and yet Jesus cared enough to bury us with him, so to speak, so that we could come alive in the resurrected Christ.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…
I know that for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been commenting on the various articles in David Rudolph’s and Joel Willitts’ book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations. Messianic Judaism stresses a significant distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers in the Ekklesia of Messiah, but for today’s commentary, I chose to focus on what we have in common. Although Israel was chosen and remains the “apple of God’s eye,” so to speak, I can’t believe that we Gentiles are the proverbial “left-handed, red-headed foster children” of God, and that He merely tolerates us and only truly loves Israel. For the promises of Messiah to be true, we have to be his beloved children as well, so that Jesus was willing, even obligated, to become “tameh” for us as well.
What would I do for the High Priest who considered me as a close member of his family, and who attended to my “body” while I was “dead in sin?” What wouldn’t I do?
I would be willing to take the lowest position in the Kingdom, the moral equivalent of the guy who cleans the toilets or takes the trash out to the dumpster while everyone else is seeking glory, seats at the head of the banquet table, and partying with the Prince in the palace, just so I could be the least of his servants.
Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours, and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do, till you require.