A foundational moment

Here’s an abridged version of a message I gave last week at Ahavat Zion Synagogue in Beverly Hills, on Parashat Shemini, Leviticus 9-11.

One of the best parts of serving as executive director of the UMJC is visiting our member congregations to worship with them on Shabbat. And I’m here not only to worship with you, but also to thank you for being part of the UMJC and helping advance the vision of welcoming Messiah home among our Jewish people. Being at Ahavat Zion is especially significant because of your location in the midst of one of the largest and most influential Jewish communities in the world, here in Southern California.

I’ve appreciated my friendship with your rabbi, Stuart Dauermann, over the years and hope to continue the close relationship under your new rabbi-designate, my friend and colleague Joshua Brumbach. One of the great ideas I got from Rabbi Stuart was to meet with a few Jewish guys in a local coffee shop to study Torah together. We’ve been meeting for over a year now, at 6:30 in the morning, and a few weeks back one of my guys raised a question that relates to this week’s parasha, and also to the time of transition that you are entering as a congregation. The question had to do with the story of Nadav and Avihu in this week’s parasha.

After the tabernacle was completed and the priests had been consecrated to begin their service, we read:

And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat. And when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord spoke, saying, “In those near to me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” And Aaron held his peace. (Lev. 9:23–10:3)

So here’s the question: My Torah group had been reading about the golden calf, and one of the guys asked, “How come God is going to be so tough on Nadav and Avihu when he is so lenient on Aaron here?” Aaron makes the golden calf, offers what appears to be a pretty lame excuse, despite the best efforts of the commentators, and then is appointed High Priest not long after. Nadav and Avihu make one mistake and are immediately consumed by divine fire. How come?

Perhaps one answer is the context; before, at the time of the golden calf, the Israelites were still an inchoate band of escaped slaves; now they have received the main body of Torah, built the Mishkan, initiated the priesthood, and are about to inaugurate an entirely new order. Indeed, the name of our parasha is Shemini, “the eighth,” and the eighth day is the first day of new creation.

This is a foundational moment. You might say that’s an oxymoron. Foundations take time, and last for a great time—they’re not made in a moment and they endure for more than a moment. But some moments are foundational, a brief time that will shape things to come for a long time ahead. Such foundational moments are especially critical. We see this in the book of Acts (chapter 5). The followers of Yeshua are selling their properties and donating the proceeds to the new Messianic community. One married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sell some land, hand over part of the proceeds and keep the rest, but they tell the apostles that they are giving all the money they made to the community. For this lie, they are struck down dead, like Nadav and Avihu. Now we all know professed believers who have lied or misrepresented something, and seem to have gotten away with it. I’ve never heard of anyone since Ananias and Sapphira being struck down for lying. But in the founding days of the Messianic community, God set a standard that helped lay a foundation for centuries to come, and so it was in the days of Nadav and Avihu. Hashem in that moment established something that lasted well over a millennium, through periods of stability and decline, renewal, exile and return.

Perhaps we are in a foundational moment, here at AZS with its leadership transition, and in the whole Messianic Jewish community if we have eyes to see it—a time of transition from one generation of leadership to another. In the UMJC we’ve launched the Kehilah 2020 project, or K20, focusing on future leadership, because we see ourselves in transition, which means that we’re in a foundational moment. I’m not saying this to make you walk on eggshells, but to urge you pay attention to these vital times and the changes they entail.

In the foundational moment in Shemini there are three players, or four really, for Hashem is always the key player in Israel’s story. But on the human side we have the tabernacle (which includes avodah or the sacrificial service), the priesthood, and all Israel. Since the golden calf incident, all three have changed in or for this foundational moment.

  1. The tabernacle is now completed according to plan and fulfilling its purpose as the venue of the shechinah, the very presence of God, as manifested in the fire of God consuming the sacrifice.
  2. The priesthood, represented by Nadav and Avihu, is changed by receiving a clear role and purpose, and then ordination, as in Leviticus 8. Indeed Shemini is their first day of service after the seven-day ordination. A day of new creation, in which it is no longer okay to wing it, if it ever was; a day in which leadership can no longer be a platform for self, if it ever was.
  3. All Israel is shaped by their repentance and discipline after their failure to be true to it. They are redeemed through receiving the detailed instructions of Torah, and communally creating the Mishkan, as recorded in the final chapters of Exodus.

If we are in a foundational moment today as well, we should expect to see changes in these three elements—the congregation and its avodah, service-worship-work; the leaders; and all Israel, the community as a whole. How are they changing in this foundational moment?

1. Congregation is not just a place to go once a week to experience God, or express our response to the experience of God (as did Nadav and Avihu), but a beacon of God’s presence. When the tabernacle was completed, the glory-cloud of God was visible to all who looked at it. Congregation-as-gathering provides strength, vision, and direction for congregation-going-out. The Christian world has been talking for the past decade or so about the missional congregation, which they contrast with the “attractional” congregation.

No longer should any of us expect to be able to set up a church in the midst of a community and have the “build it and they will come” Field of Dreams phenomena take place. Rather, we must develop pockets of believers embedded throughout the community that draw life from the well of redemption and see their own lives as available way stations for thirsty travelers. (Hirsch and Ford, Right Here Right Now, 74.)

Congregational services should remain attractive, but we can’t depend on attraction to fulfill our communal assignment.

2. For leaders, success is not measured by how great the leader is at doing it all, but by his skill in helping others do it all, in equipping members for healthy, tradition-positive, spiritually vibrant community expression.

The book, The New Rabbi, by Stephen Fried, describes Har Zion synagogue’s search for a new leader after many years under a prominent and gifted rabbi, Gerald Wolpe.

A controversy apparently erupted about whether the next rabbi of Har Zion would be someone they could address by first name. Congregants at Har Zion never call Rabbi Gerald Wolpe “Jerry” to his face. It’s just not done. . . . The debate, of course, is about more than the rabbi’s name. It is about the future of Judaism, the future of all American religions, really. We have, in general, preferred a good show to full congregational participation, and charismatic leaders have been valued more highly than patient teachers and scholars because they fill seats.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.” We can put that a bit more accurately: “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in God working within him or her; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in God working within them.” A great leader builds participation, which leads to the next point.

3. All Israel, the people of the community, are now essential players. Just as building the Mishkan  is a redemptive act for all Israel, so the mission of the congregation is carried out by all its members. They gather not for religious consumerism, but to draw life from the well of redemption and see their own lives as available way stations for thirsty travelers. We speak of being postmodern, or postliberal, or post this-and-that, so let’s talk about being a post-consumerist congregation. It’s not a place where I pick up benefits and programs at the lowest possible cost, but a gathering to worship a holy God, a setting in which I contribute, and from which I go out to represent the same God I worship, 24/7.

This final point brings us back to Nadav and Avihu. They are judged in a foundational moment, but judged for what? For usurping the Mishkan, which belonged to all Israel, into a place where they can do their own thing, for shifting the focus off the holiness of God and onto themselves. So, at this foundational moment, God makes it clear that …

1) The nearer we draw to God, the more accountable we become.

Our glory as followers of Messiah is nearness to God. We were far off, alienated in sin and unbelief, and God brought us near to himself in Yeshua. But do we remember God’s admonition, In those near to me I show myself holy?

2) Those who are near to God represent God to those not-so-near.

Do we tarnish God’s reputation by the way we live? This question is especially relevant today when we badly need a renewal of influence and connection with the community around us. Let’s be a 24/7, post-consumerist congregation, ready to represent God faithfully to those around us, not just at religious high-points, but throughout our days.

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