This week’s parsha, Vayikra, the first parsha in the book of Vayikra or Leviticus, is largely concerned with sacrifices.
We get the details of all sorts of different sacrifices:
- Burnt offering
- Meal offering
- First fruits offering
- Meal offering of first fruits
- Peace offerings
- Sin offerings
- Sin offerings of the assembly
- Sin offerings of the ruler
- And guilt offerings
As you can see, there was a sacrifice for every occasion. Sacrifices for saying “thanks,” sacrifices for saying “I’m sorry.” Any occasion that today might be a “Hallmark occasion,” a time to send a card, back then could have been an occasion to bring a sacrifice.
It’s not surprising that we had so many different kinds of sacrifices related to sin. We all mess up at times. Sinning distances us from God, and the way to return to God back in the days of the Temple was to bring a korban, a sacrifice. The word korban itself alludes to this: it is related to the word karov, which means near. Sacrifices were the way to draw near to God, to repair the damage which had been done by sin.
As you might surmise from the mention of so many different kinds of sin offerings, sin offerings are the ones most talked about in the Talmud. The word for “sin offering” appears more than 2000 times in the Babylonian Talmud. Yet “sin offering” is actually a bad translation.
There are several different words for “sin” in Hebrew, and they all have somewhat different meanings. Ahvohn and pesha both connote an intentional transgression. The “Chatat,” which your chumash translates as “sin offering” is for a chet. The word chet means “to miss the mark,” as in archery, if you were aiming at the target and missed. A chet is an UNINTENTIONAL sin; in other words an accident. If a person violated a law of Shabbat, not because he was intentionally ignoring it, but either because he forgot it was Shabbat, or he didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to do a certain thing on Shabbat, he would bring one of these offerings, a Chatat. You would not bring a Chatat for an intentional transgression, for a pesha or an ahvohn; for those kinds of sins there were other techniques for seeking atonement, which all involved doing teshuva and fixing the damage. The Chatat was only for unintentional sins.
The idea that you are responsible to atone for an accident is an interesting notion. Compare this with the usual attitude toward accidents: if you do something accidentally, you say “I’m sorry,” and go on your way. Even worse, all too often if we’re involved in an accident instead of accepting our responsibility, or accepting it as a happening of fate, we look for someone else to blame, we look for someone to sue.
The message of the Chatat is that we are responsible for ALL our deeds, intentional or accidental. But what is the point of bringing a sacrifice for an accident?
I believe there is a double message. The first point is that most accidents may be preventable on some level; if you had been paying better attention, or had prepared yourself better, perhaps the accident could have been avoided. If you know you will have to pay if you screw up, even accidentally, you will strive to be more careful in the future.
As is pointed out in Sefer haChinukh, “the mind is influenced predominantly by deeds. It is impracticable for the repentant sinner to cleanse his heart by a mere verbal undertaking to avoid sinning in the future; for this purpose a significant act must be performed.” Shrugging your shoulders and saying “sorry” is not enough.
Taking responsibility for our own accidents is important. A few years ago I was involved in an aircraft accident. I was teaching an advanced student, someone working on a commercial license, in a multi-engine airplane that he had owned for ten years. Between the two of us we had over 45 years of accident free piloting experience. Despite that, in training, he made a serious error, and botched a landing which destroyed his airplane. Thank God neither one of us was injured. The FAA labeled it as a training accident, one of those things “that happens,” and neither one of us was given as much as the equivalent of a ticket. Despite that, it certainly was a worthwhile endeavor for both the pilot and myself to think about what we had done that might have unintentionally contributed to the accident; what could we have done different? What additional preparations could we have taken? From thoughts such as these, we can prevent accidents from happening again. By taking responsibility, by not seeking to blame others, we learn and improve.
In the time of Temple, after such a near escape I would have brought a sacrifice, an offering to thank God for protecting me, for seeing me through a dangerous situation. One substitute for a sacrifice we have today is that after experiencing something harrowing, we “bentch gomel,” we say a special prayer thanking God for being generous to us. This is a great custom that I encourage people to do; we all naturally feel an inclination to thank God when we’ve survived something dangerous. Bentching gomel is a great way to acknowledge that feeling of relief in this day and age when we don’t have the Temple. If you’ve been in a car accident, or narrowly escaped an accident, or have been through a surgery, let me or the gabbai know, and we can arrange for you to be able to recite gomel.
I said earlier there were two reasons for the Chatat; the first was to concretize our need to try harder. The second is that if we have unintentionally sinned, we’ve messed up, we’ve “missed the mark,” we’ve fallen short of God’s expectations of us, or of our expectations of ourselves, we have a need to atone. Even an accidental messup can damage a relationship. If you forget your anniversary, it doesn’t matter that you have an excuse—some harm has been done. We all have a desire to fix any damage we may have done to an important relationship—even if the damage was done accidentally. The Chatat offered a way to fix the damage, to bring us back to God.
But without the Temple standing, how do we achieve this atonement? We can no longer bring a Chatat to atone for these errors.
The answer is found in our siddur. It’s a passage from the midrash that the rabbis thought was so important they included it as part of our daily liturgy, found on page 15 in our siddur. The story is told that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking near the ruins of the destroyed Temple with his disciple Rabbi Joshua. Rabbi Joshua looked at the ruins and said, “Oy lanu, woe to us, the place which atoned for the sins of Israel through sacrifice lies in ruins!” Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai comforted him by saying “Do not be grieved, my son. There is another way to gain atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness,” for it is written, “It is lovingkindness that I desire, not sacrifice.”
We heal our transgressions, we make up for our “accidents,” not just by saying sorry—not even saying “sorry” in our prayers to God. But rather, just as in the past, we had to DO something to make up for an accident. Even today, we CAN do something when we mess up. We can treat other people, all of whom are created “b’tzelem Elokim,” in God’s image, with love and kindness.