This Week's Torah Portion: Are Accidental Sins Punished?

Dëvar Torah – Parashath VaYiqra’ (Leviticus I, 1 — V, 26)

This week’s parasha begins the third of the books of the written Torah, called by the Rabbis of the Talmud Torarth Kohanim, and therefore by the Septuagint Leviticus (i.e., “the book pertaining to the Lëviyyim”). Just as Israel at Sinai assumed the function of the world’s mamlecheth kohanim vëgoy qadosh (“kingdom of hohanim and holy nation,” Exodus XIX, 6), so within Israel, in microcosm, the Lëviyyim and kohanim assume the administration of the institution of sanctity and service embodied in the Mishkan and Temple.

For this reason, much of Leviticus is concerned with the details and regulations of that service. Since, due to our many sins, the Temple has not been standing for close to 2,000 years, the relevancy of these parashoth to this debased age is sometimes hard to see. Let’s focus on the sacrifice called the chattath in our parasha and see how it is relevant to us in the present era.

The chattath (usually translated “sin offering”) is in fact a sacrifice which one is required to bring for commission of a fairly serious sin (one which would ordinarily entail the Biblical penalty of karéth “excision,” i.e. an untimely death and termination of one’s line of descent) or bishgaga, usually translated as “by mistake” or “by accident.” The whole concept seems incredibly arbitrary and harsh to modern ears. After all, if one commits an action unintentionally, how can one be held liable? Why should we have to pay any penalty or bring any atoning sacrifice? It’s not our fault! It happened by accident!

A careful reading of chapter IV in which the chattath is first described shows us that there are various levels of severity of the sacrifice thus incurred, depending on the status of the party bringing the chattath. Thus, if the kohén gadol (here called hakohén hamashiach or “anointed “ohén,cf. IV, 3) or the Sanhedrin (the ‘adath Yisra’él of v. 13; cf. Rashi ad loc.) collectively must bring a chattath, the sacrifice must consist of a yearling bull, a very considerable expense. At the next level, the civil or secular leader, the nasi’ (v. 22) brings a male goat, while one of the common people (‘am ha’aretz, vv. 27-28) brings a female goat. What is the significance of these differences?

One more peculiarity can be noted in the wording of the above verses: in the cases of the kohén hamashiach, the Sanhedrin, and the ‘am ha’aretz, the provision for brining the chattath is introduced by the word im, “if.” If a sin is committed bishgaga, then a chattath must be brought. Only in the case of the nasi’ do we find that the verse reads: Asher nasi’ yecheta’, which is usually translated “when a leader sins.”

Does the Torah expect less of the nasi’? Is his sin somehow inevitable where the rest are not?

To begin to understand this fascinating institution, it is necessary to understand what the Torah means by bishgaga. In contemporary English, we tend to use the phrase “by accident” as meaning something done unintentionally, whether through neglect, forgetfulness, or force of circumstances. The Torah distinguishes these categories very carefully from one another. The second category, commission of a sin not only unintentionally but through circumstances completely outside of one’s control, is called ones. Something of the flavor of the Torah’s attitude toward this category is conveyed by noting that the Torah uses the same word to refer to “rape.” “One” is a victim of circumstance, his sensibilities have been “raped.” Had he been in any way in control, he would never have allowed the violation to take place. Such a transgression is no transgression at all. Ones, the Rabbis tell us, Rachmana patreih (“G-d exempts one forced to sin,” ‘Avoda Zara 54a).

The first category, though, is a very different matter. The Séfer haChinnuch, a classic work which discusses the Torah’s 613 mitzvoth in the order in which they occur in the parashaoth (mitzva 117), notes that part of the reason the Torah requires an animal sacrifice in this case is that animals and human beings are in fact very similar one to the other, differing only in the human faculty of intelligence (séchel). A chét’, a sin of negligence or forgetfulness, he observes, comes about only through the abdication of that intelligence, permitting the “beastly” nature to take control momentarily. The slaughter and burning of the chattath, then, is the symbolic annihilation of this animal state of existence and the re-enthronement of one’s intelligent self-control.

The great Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, commenting on Leviticus XVI, 16, makes the ancillary comment that it is possession of this faculty of intelligence that requires man to be ever watchful and alert, charéd ‘al dëvari, “anxious over My word (Isaiah XLVI, 2),” as the prophet put it. Carelessness, even for a moment, is the abdication of that alertness and the root of the real transgression.

Rabbi David Tzëvi Hoffmann, another great German rabbinical authority of the previous century, offers a similar but slightly different insight. He suggests that the shëgaga or “error” lies in ignorance of the halacha (such that one does not realize that a given action is forbidden, or that the action is so severe that it carries the penalty of karéth, or that performance of such and such an act constitutes a violation of a known prohibition). Rabbi Hoffmann derives from numerous verses in the Torah (cf. e.g. Leviticus XVIII, 30) a general requirement to know what is in the Torah (since otherwise it is impossible to observe it properly). For him, then, violation of some serious transgression because of ignorance of the Torah is also an abdication of human intelligence. For what other purpose were we granted this faculty, if not first and foremost to learn and understand our obligations in this world?

This leads directly to the question of the Torah’s “sliding scale” of chatta’oth. In a properly constituted Torah society, the kohanim and the Sanhedrin are the elite, the Torah leadership, the source of instruction in proper behavior. They should not come in any way to compromise their responsibilities (especially if, as the verse concerning the Sanhedrin tells us, yishgu vëne‘elam davar mé‘éynei haqahal, “they err and something escapes the eyes of the community”). Rashi tells us in so many words that means if “they mistakenly instruct concerning one of the instances of karéth in the Torah that it is permissible,” horrific consequences far beyond the personal can result. The grave seriousness of the matter is brought home by the heavy expense of the sacrifice to be made.

The king, however (or whatever form the secular leadership takes; for this reason the Torah uses the somewhat ambiguous term nasi’), despite his leadership position, is also subject to the Torah leadership of his day. His example is certainly important and influential, but not of such earth-shaking gravity as a mistake in hora’a (“instruction”), greater than the commoner (whose female goat signifies his rather passive role in this regard), but less than that of the Rav.

Which leads us to the difference in wording noted supra. The Torah anticipates the possibility that a catastrophic error in hora’a due to some instance of ignorance or lack of diligence could occur. The gëdolim according to whose words we live, great human beings that they are, are yet human. Should they so err, they can only correct it by making this very public and heavy sacrifice. Further, it is possible in the case of any commoner, however diligently he follows the word and example of those gëdolim, that he might drop his guard once and sin. This is also an instance of if.

But, as the great 19th century rabbi of Kiev, Rabbi Mé’ir Leybush Malbim, notes in commenting on v. 22 the use of the word asher does not connote a way to fix an unpleasant eventuality, but rather something which the Torah desires to occur. As Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai remarks in the Talmud, Ashrei (a pun on the word asher) hador shehanasi’ shello mévi’ qorban ‘al shigëgato (“happy is the generation whose leader brings a sacrifice for his error,” Horayoth X, 2). An age in which the civil leadership exhibits sufficient humility, insight, sensibility, and submission to Torah to make an example of itself for the common people is indeed a fortunate age.

It is important to realize that all of us are ultimately in a “leadership” position. Those of us who are actually morei hora’a or appointed to some civil position of authority know who we are, and the tremendous pressures of the “goldfish bowl” in which we find ourselves. But each and every observant Jew is a model of Jewish observance (whether he wants it or not) for all of his friends and associates, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, at all times. When he does something, or fails to do it, in their eyes it is not only he who acted or failed to act, but Orthodox Jewry. For this reason, we must all be very careful in the standards we project and the values we uphold, to make the very best example of ourselves to the ‘am ha’aretz.

Just like the nasi’.