Everybody Needs A Hero

September 25, 2017
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Everybody needs a hero, but often we do not get the one we expect. The parasha for Yom Kippur, Leviticus chapter 16, describes the heroic actions of Aaron the Cohen Gadol. Like most true heroes he had to rise to an occasion greater than anything on his resume. I am sure as he prepared to go into the Holiest Place on Yom Kippur, to bring the sacrificial blood for the atonement of the Nation of Israel, he could not have failed to recall how the dead bodies of his sons Nadab and Abihu were dragged from the very same location, after they had failed to perform the priestly tasks with the proper reverence and prescribed protocols. It would not be surprising if his own failings as a priest and a parent did not indict him and threaten to freeze him in his tracks. Yet he knew Israel needed a hero, and for this occasion he was God’s choice.

So before entering the Holiest Place as an advocate for the nation, Aaron first made a sacrifice for the sins of himself and his own household, an acknowledgment that humanity does not produce perfect people – But that the contrite can rise above their own shortcomings and accomplish incredible things in the service of the Holy One. This of course is the same Aaron who at the bequest of the angry mob had crafted the Golden Calf, making him culpable of one of the monumental indiscretions in the history of Israel. How ironic is it that HaShem would also allow Aaron to stand in the gap once a year as the mediator of the atonement sacrifice?

As innocent blood was poured out for the sins of the cohanim and Israel, the truly humane were called to recognize the true violence of their own nature, and the infirmities of their souls. This is why the psalmist can declare, “It is not sacrifices that you desire but a broken and contrite heart.” Aaron essentially was calling Israel to Teshuvah or repentance. As Cohen Gadol or the Great High Priest Aaron placed his hands upon the sacrificial beast. In this sacred drama Aaron symbolically exhorted the congregation of Israel to place the hidden and depraved parts of their own souls upon the altar to be extricated from their person and from the carnal body of the community. This was a battle for the heart and the life of Israel as the people of God. Everybody needs a hero and Aaron was a true mediator of God’s Justice and his mercy.

The principle of mediation in Torah itself is firmly entrenched. Moses mediates the Sinai covenant, receiving words from God to be delivered to Israel, and praying to God on Israel’s behalf. Aaron and his high-priestly descendants wear precious jewels engraved with the names of the twelve tribes, signaling their role as the representatives of the entire community before the Divine Presence. When they bless the people after offering sacrifice, they act as agents of God, mediating divine blessing.

Why then in response to Messianic claims about the mediation role of the Messiah, does one often hear Jewish people remark, “We Jews believe that we can come directly to God. We have no need for a mediator.” This portrays the difference between the two belief systems as a controversy over the possibility of obtaining unmediated access to God. Is this an accurate representation? Historically it is in part. But only if we ignore the greater weight of Torah and accept but one particular view of Judaism.

After the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 the priestly system of mediation ceased. Judaism was a broad landscape that included the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essences, the Qumran community and among others the followers of Yeshua. Each of these groups had to ask themselves how the Jewish people were to survive without the priestly system that was essential to Judaism and prominent through most of the Torah. The early Messianics understood Yeshua as the embodiment of the Cohen Gadol and the ultimate mediator. The Rabbinic form of Judaism that attained ascendancy in the post-Temple era de-emphasized the need for individual mediators, even to the point of guarding against the glorification of Moses. This is reflected in the absence of references to Moses in the Passover Haggadah, and the dearth of such references in the Siddur. To this extent, the common view of Judaism’s attitude toward mediation is justified.

On a deeper level, however, this view falls far short. While the role of individual mediators is downplayed in Rabbinic Judaism (with the important and controversial exception of Hasidism), and while the priestly caste no longer stands as a collective representative of God to Israel and Israel to God, the individual Jew does not approach God directly. In our hearts we know this. That is why our people have carefully maintained a legacy of Cohens. They are given privilege as the first aliyah called to the Torah, in the performance of the Pidyon Haben (the redemption of the firstborn), and in the traditional blessing at the end of Yom Kippur.

Will Herberg, one of the most prominent Jewish thinkers in America during the last century recognized and stated forcefully the need for mediation in Judaism:

“In both Judaism and Christianity…there is no such thing as a direct and unmediated relation to God; this relation must in some way be mediated through one’s covenant status. In Judaism, however, it is by virtue of his being a member of the People Israel that the believer approaches God and has standing before him; in Christianity, it is by virtue of his being a member of Christ…To be a Jew means to meet God and receive his grace in and through Israel; to be a Christian means to meet God and receive his grace in and through Christ…Authentic Judaism is therefore Israel-centered…while authentic Christianity is Christ-centered. In neither need this centrality lead to a diversion from God, because in both it is through mediation that God is approached.”

This may not sit well with an American Jew at the beginning of the twentieth-first century, accustomed to thinking about religious (and most other) matters in highly individualistic terms. Nevertheless, it is a fair depiction of the historic Jewish understanding of relationship with God.

This is the reality, which is expressed, in the first blessing of the Amidah, the basic prayer of Jewish tradition. This blessing begins by addressing God as “our God and the God of our Fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and concludes by calling him “the Shield of Abraham.” Thus, we inaugurate our prayer by acknowledging that we have confidence to stand before God and offer him our requests only because we are part of the people of Israel, descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and heir to all the promises made to the Patriarchs. This is mediation in the strongest sense.

The role of Messiah Yeshua in traditional Christian spirituality illumines this aspect of Jewish spirituality, and is illumined by it in turn. Many scholars of the New Testament and Christian liturgy would see the opening phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father,” as functioning in a similar fashion as the opening blessing of the Amida. The disciple of Yeshua addresses God as Father, not because all human beings have such a filial relationship with God by right, but because the disciple has been brought into Yeshua’s own filial relationship with God. Before God, the follower of Yeshua stands in Yeshua, just as the Jew stands in Israel.

From this perspective, Messianic Jews have a unique stance. We come to God in both Israel and in Messiah. This seemingly anomalous situation is clarified by a profound and rather pithy phrase also coined by Will Herberg. He refers to Yeshua as a “one-man Israel.” In Messianic thought, Yeshua is the individual and personal embodiment of the entire people, like Jacob himself. As Israel is referred in Scripture as God’s son, so Yeshua the Messiah is quintessentially God’s son. Just as Israel has suffered through the ages for the redemption of the nations, so Yeshua suffered as the atonement for Israel. But even more he overcame death so that we would have the strength to go on. If Israel is God’s anchor in this world; Yeshua is Israel’s hope for the world yet to come.

Hope can be quite transient when anchored by self-sufficiency. On September 10th 2001 many of our friends and neighbors banked their futures, their retirements, and their children’s education on their stocks, bonds and investment instruments. By 11am September 11th it was uncertain when and if the NY Stock Exchange would reopen. But then the unthinkable happened. On the streets of NY, humanities great sea of indifference, people began to touch people and common folk became uncommon heroes. As though the antidote to the repetitive images of mass destruction, footage and photos of firefighters, police, EMTs, rescue workers, paramedics, Red Cross workers, blood donors and fundraisers elevated our collective sense of hope. They became mediators of divine mercy. Afterall everybody needs a hero, and heroism can be contagious.

But sixteen years have passed, the giant hole in lower Manhattan remained as a monument to the spirit of human self-sufficiency, while we sent our everyday heroes off to distant shores to break rather than bolster the human spirit. Enough people have been killed in American wars in the start to this millenium  to equal a 9/11 attack per day for a year, and the unreported numbers in Asia, South America and East Africa dwarfs this number. It took little time for we, our friends and our neighbors to again collectively place our ultimate confidence in the golden calf we call Wall Street, and many we know are again suffering.

So the world still needs real heroes, and quietly and some have risen to the occasion. Humanitarian aid , military, and construction workers as well as medics are working to restore order in Houston and Florida as a result of the hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Efforts have just begun in Puerto Rico.  These wokers are often unrecognized for thier efforts.  Often unrecognized for their efforts, firefighters in the western part of our country continue to put out blazes that have spread at unprecedented rates. And in our inner cities mission workers are often reviled for feeding the homeless, and helpless and the neediest among us. And they do thankless. And selfless jobs everyday because they know that everyone needs a hero.

We should be inspired by the sacrificial acts of these common people doing uncommon acts of heroism, but how much more should we be inspired by the intercession of the Messiah who is the greatest revelation of God to humanity. If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, heroic figures that were none the less, human fragile and faulted could mediate the justice and mercy of God then how much more could a Cohen Gadol who was tempted in all things and yet was without sin. Yeshua is our kipporah, our covering. He doesn’t hide us but he should inspire us. He doesn’t go instead of us, but rather ahead of us; so we might follow him into the throne room of grace and have confidence that we will receive grace and mercy in our time of need. That is what a mediator does, and after all, everybody needs a hero.

5 Responses to Everybody Needs A Hero

  1. Henry Gutterman on September 12, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Dear Paul

    This is a direct quote from your article on Yom Kippur.
    “As innocent blood was poured out for the sins of the cohanim and Israel, the truly humane were called to recognize the true violence of their own nature, and the infirmities of their souls. This is why the psalmist can declare, “It is not sacrifices that you desire but a broken and contrite heart.” Aaron essentially was calling Israel to Tehuvah or repentance. As Cohen Gadol or the Great High Priest Aaron placed his hands upon the sacrificial beast. In this sacred drama Aaron symbolically exhorted the congregation of Israel to place the hidden and depraved parts of their own souls upon the altar to be extricated from their person and from the carnal body of the community. This was a battle for the heart and the life of Israel as the people of God. Everybody needs a hero and Aaron was a true mediator of God’s Justice and his mercy.”

    In my experience the depraved parts of my nature (sins) that I am aware of
    are never put to death as the sacrificial animal is put to death. They seem to pop up unexpectantly or I give in to temptation more than I should. Is it accurate to say that When I place my soul on the altar it means that I have the opportunity to CONTROL these sins by Gods power rather than putting them to death once for all. Is this equivalent with Yeshua,s statement to take up your cross daily and follow me? Is this the same concept that Paul brings out when he says “I am crucified with messiah nevertheless I Live yet not I but messiah lives in me and the life I now live I live by the faith in the son of God who loves me and gave himself for me”? Paul also says that the outward man perishes while the inner man is being renewed day by day.Is this the picture of sacrafice that you are discussing?

    • Rabbi Paul on September 12, 2010 at 8:18 pm

      Well said!

  2. Raphael Gamaroff on September 16, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Hi
    Thanks for a great article.
    I wanted to ask about the Jewish view of sin. In all my discussions with (frum) Jews and rabbis, they say that there is no blood sacrifice for intentional sin. This sounds weird to me. In the light of this, how does what I said correspond to your piece below?:
    “before entering the Holiest Place as an advocate for the nation, Aaron first made a sacrifice for the sins of himself and his own household, an acknowledgment that humanity does not produce perfect people – But that the contrite can rise above their own shortcomings and accomplish incredible things in the service of the Holy One.”

    Raphael (bography)

    • Rabbi Paul on September 16, 2010 at 5:32 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement and the great question Raphael. It is difficult to ever talk about ‘the Jewish view” of anything. But I will try anyway. There is a rabbinical understanding of sin that understands the three most common Hebrew words used in the scripture as unique iterations of sin. The three words are chet, avon, and peshe. These words often appear together in the same sentence forming what literary critics would call a parallelism. The rabbis see this as a progression of sin. Chet is understood to be inadvertent sins of either omission or commission. Avon is sin that we excuse as normal (i.e. parking in a handicap spot because “there are too many spots and they are not occupied”). The third permutation, peshe, is sin that is so hardened that it becomes part of our being we can become unreachable and impenetrable. Often such people wear their sin on their arm like a badge of honor. It is this kind of sin that the atonement of Yom Kippur, as well as the blood of all sacrifices are ineffective for. Simply put the atonement is meant as a means of grace to lighten our souls and to allow ourselves to become transformed. When one says “I won’t change” the blood is ineffective. This is why the Psalmist can say, “I do not desire sacrifice rather a contrite heart.” In much the same way the sacrifice of Yeshua is only effective for the contrite. That is why the apostolic witness can create a dialectic tension between the assurance of salvation, and working out ones salvation with fear and trembling.

      One more thought is that the rabbis also taught that for sins against heaven the sacrifice of Yom Kippur atones, but for the sins against another person it does not. In Leviticus when the shelomim (peace offering) was brought by an individual they were required and they new that another person had a gripe with them they were required to first make things right. Yeshua also taught in the Sermon on the Mount that such a person should leave their offering on the altar and make peace.

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