This double portion focuses completely on redressing the balance after the death of Nadav and Avihu and their sin of presumption, a presumption that God would accept anything they did and the inherent dangers of the people being taught the wrong thing due to their actions if not words. The long section on holiness naturally flows from this event, a corrective reminder of the path of righteousness, a path we see reflected in Ya’akov’s letter too.
We were not to be like the Canaanites who were there in the Land before us and not like the Egyptians from where we had just come. But despite our rallying call to ‘do and obey’ (na’aseh v’nishma) we seemed unable to walk in the path given to us. Such simple commands all seemed to be beyond our reach. And it was given to the prophets to tell us what the Lord felt about that situation.
Ezekiel’s commentary is typical: right from the outset he describes our holy and eternal city as a city of blood (ir hadamim), a place where the blood of innocents flowed. The city of holiness had become a byword of corruption and unrighteousness. Read Ezekiel 22:7-15. Judgement came in 586 BCE as Babylon invaded and although the final comments in verses 18-22 point to a glimmer of hope, the detailed charges laid against us are harsh and bleak. It is because of our sins as a nation that we were vomited out of the Land. The covenant in force dictates exactly how our history unfolds, if not the when.
Read Leviticus 18:26-28. The Canaanites who were there before us were vomited out of the Land too! The Hebrew word used of vomit is the same word used of Yonah’s ejection from the fish. There’s an instinctive and powerful reaction in the Land itself to unrighteousness and unholiness. Yet, hold on… WE were given the covenants and revelations; WE have the oracles of G-d and not them! Why would pagans be ejected from the Land? Indeed, why would God bring judgement upon the nations at all, nations that were never given the commandments of God in the first place? The vomiting out of the Canaanites opens up a much wider issue: what is it about the Land in particular and the world (earth) in general that connects adversely with sin?
Rav Shaul, in Romans 8:19-23 understands something profound: when he says that ALL have sinned, he means it. Although the commandments and covenants were given to US as a nation, rebellion against God is global. We do not as Jews hold the monopoly on sin. Sin spread with humanity to the whole planet, and so as Rav says, the whole of creation groans, and we groan too under the tidal wave of sin and uncleanness that threatens to swamp all righteous life. And it is this groaning of creation under this burden that calls out to God and He responds with His judgement. He HAS to judge nations now because unlike any individual who is judged before God as they stand before Him, nations do not die, they are merely repopulated on a rolling basis, so evil can multiply, and does. If it were not for His regular judgement and interruption of the ‘normal’ flow of humanity in nation states evil would reach unbearable levels.
This shows us something else: We so often talk about our role and calling as a nation to be the light to the nations attracting them to us and to our God and Mashiach. All that is true. But then so is the obligation on all nations to seek God and understand WHY judgement has come upon them; all have sinned and so all must seek Him. It isn’t all on our shoulders alone, thankfully! Each nation, and individual within it, needs to seek God to find a reversal of the sin burden afflicting them, an antidote to the wasting disease called sin that destroys not only people but places creation itself (which was created good) under pressure.
But that still leaves us with the ‘localised’ issue of the Land. The Land is different inasmuch as no other people groups have been vomited off the planet, nor any other country/nation has been vomited out due to sin. They may have suffered the consequences, but the experiences of the Canaanites was such that it is clear Israel is qualitatively different. That this real estate should function in such a powerful way suggests that it has been sanctified for the purposes of God alone, that His name is there in an immediacy not known elsewhere. We struggle with this concept because we feel in our modern egalitarian minds that all places are equal and equally holy. That isn’t true. Holiness, which this passage speaks so much about, is about dedication, offering FOR service and being set apart. Israel (the land) has been set apart by God Himself for His service, to be the homeland for His people to fulfil our calling and task. That the Canaanites were ejected now makes sense. Standards are higher in Eretz Israel than elsewhere because it has been chosen and dedicated to represent holiness and righteousness where other slices of land have not. Where the whole of creation groans, Israel vomits out. And before we rejoice in this (against those who we may not want to see living in our Land), just think… the same righteous requirements rest on us too!)
To live in the Land requires holiness and sanctity, it requires a cleaning process that is marked out ritually, but ultimately can only be done by the Lord. If God doesn’t help us, then the Land is lost…
But help is at hand. Read Ezek 22:15. It has always been God’s promise to us to make us righteous enough to live in our Land, holy enough and clean enough. It is all about His ability and not ours. That is the core message of Torah and of Judaism. He sets free to allow us to take up our residency. And this is reflected in one of the greatest verses in the Tanach, 2 Chron 7:14 ‘If my people humble themselves and pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven and forgive their sins and HEAL THEIR LAND. Sin causes the Land to vomit us, and others, out but His ability to cleanse means that ANY who call on His name can be saved and be righteous enough in Him to live there.