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Torah Sparks

March 15, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Lev. 1:1 - 5:26 (Hertz, p. 410; Etz Hayim, p. 585)
Triennial Cycle II: Lev. 3:1 - 4:26 (Hertz, p. 415; Etz Hayim, p. 592)
Maftir: Deut: 25:17-19 (Hertz, p. 856; Etz Hayim, p. 1135)
Haftarah: I Samuel 15:2 - 34 (Hertz, p. 995; Etz Hayim, p. 1280)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Torah Portion Summary

(1:1-17) The laws regarding the olah, or burnt offering. The entire animal, except for the hide, was burned to ashes on the altar. The olah described here is brought by an individual as a voluntary offering to atone for neglect of positive commandments.

(2:1-16) The laws regarding the minhah, or meal offering. There were two types: communal meal-offerings brought on Passover, Shavuot, and Shabbat, and individual meal-offerings usually brought by people too poor to afford an animal or a fowl.

(3:1-17) The laws concerning the zevah sh'lamim, the peace-offering or "offering of well-being." Unlike the olah, which was completely consumed on th e altar, the zevah sh'lamimwas a sacred meal, shared by donors and kohanim.

(4:1-26) The laws regarding the hattat, or sin-offering. A hattat was given for sins one committed accidentally or unknowingly.

(4:27-35) Similar sin-offerings, but for the individual.

(5:1-26) The asham, guilt-offering. This was given when one was uncertain whether one had offended, or in a case where someone had wronged another, denied his guilt, then later his conscience bothered him and he wanted to confess and make amends.

Discussion Theme: Communal Judgment

“If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation so that they do any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt—when the sin through which they incurred built becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a sin offering, and bring it before the Tent of Meeting.” (Lev. 4:13-14)


  1. “Edah” is... the distinctive term for (the whole community), the entire Israelite nation—men, women, and children... It can also be used of tribal leaders meeting as an executive body, acting on behalf of the entire community... How is it possible for the entire people to err simultaneously? The thesis that verses 1-21 form a single case, propounded above, whereby the high priest’s erroneous decision causes the whole community to err, makes this eventuality highly plausible.” (Jacob Milgrom, Anchor Bible Series Leviticus, 4:13)
  2. “When the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known”. The reason the verb, “becomes known,” is in the passive is because everyone in the community erred and there is no uninvolved outsider who can objectively point out the error. That discovery must come from within the community’s own ranks. (Shadal on Lev. 4:14)
  3. Fifty years ago... a leading Orthodox rabbi used to advise his flock that “the yarmulke is an indoor garment.” Today, Jewish males in all walks of life proudly wear a kippah, and Jewish women publicly display their identification with jewelry that incorporates Jewish symbols. Yet simultaneously, masses of Jews, including some 200,000 Jewish convert to Christianity and countless children and grandchildren of intermarriages, are disappearing into the anonymity of American society. Religious antagonism between adherents of the various branches of Judaism has reached new levels of intensity... The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicates that a smaller percentage of Jews affiliate with synagogues than 20 years ago. But radically new types of religious congregations are springing up to serve populations with special interests—feminists, homosexuals and particular age cohorts... At the heart of this wide-reaching transformation in religious life lies the uniquely American glorification of individualism... For the religious movements, the greatest challenge posed by the new individualism is the maintenance of religious norms. In the past, all the branches of Judaism, regardless of their differences, strongly maintained that Judaism requires its adherents to abide by norms of behavior... Today, however, both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have empowered the autonomous individual—that is, each Jew—to pick and choos e from Judaism that which is personally meaningful. Their leaders are unwilling to characterize how the “ideal Jew” ought to behave. Conservative Judaism is under enormous pressure from within to accommodate to the new individualism. Only Orthodoxy in its various permutations seems so far able to withstand the pressure to conform to the spirit of the age. (Jack Wertheimer, Moment Magazine, August 1994)
  4. Of all the recent religious changes in America, few are more significant, or more subtle, than the enhanced religious individualism of our time. Americans generally hold a respectful attitude toward religion, but also they increasingly regard it as a matter of personal choice or preference. Today choice means more than simply having an option among religious alternatives; it involves religion as an option itself and an opportunity to draw selectively off a variety of traditions in the pursuit of the self. (Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, 1987)
  5. Some of the enemies of Israel have said: “Since it appears that we cannot destroy Israel through terrorism and warfare, why not try the opposite? Make peace with the Jews and they will destroy themselves. In the absence of an external enemy, they will collapse under the weight of their internal divisions and disagreements.” There is certainly a legitimate place for disagreement in Jewish life today; I hopeall the assenting and dissenting voices will be heard. Jewish cultural and religious vitality depends on our ability to appreciate and understand how different Jews think about their history... Let us not argue who is more loyal to the Jewish people or who cares more about its continuity. Instead, let us argue about the content of that continuity.” (David Hartman, The NY Jewish Week, July 21, 1995)
  6. We Jews have survived so long surrounded by a sea of others that we have long since acquired the capacity to absorb... the culture and many of the behavioral patterns of those around us... And what is seeping in these days? Hatred and incivility, intolerance, and infinite anger... America is awash in hatred... in this country, the airwaves are filled with expressions of hate, with political disagreement that gets personal and vicious. Expressing hatred, whether on telephone call-in radio programs or sleazy television talk shows, has become the new mass entertainment... Has this begun to rub off on the Jews? Read my hate mail, the angry reactions that pour in response to any column that calls for supporting the peace process or that urges civility in our debates over what is best for the Jews or Israel...” (Samuel Heilman, ibid)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

The Talmud tells us that if somebody sins once and then repeats it, to him it becomes a permitted act. If he does it a third time, it becomes a commandment.

We human beings have a way of rationalizing the wrong we do. The sin offering, or today's repentance, helps strip away that built-in insulation; we are encouraged to be self-reflective. But, as our passage from Leviticus 4:13 points out, the Jewish community must come before God. The process of repentance, reflection, and reform is not just an individual one; there is communal judgment.

What should be the major issues that we as a Jewish community are accountable for? What are the gravest sins that “the whole community of Israel” has committed? Is it intolerance, an overemphasis on individualism, assimilation? Have we learned anything from the population studies and social critics of the 90’s?

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