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Torah Sparks

March 28, 2009 – 3 Nisan 5769

Annual: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 585; Hertz p. 410)
Triennial: Leviticus 3:1 – 4:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 592; Hertz p. 415)
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 607; Hertz p. 424)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

The Book of Vayikra is also known as Torat Kohanim, the Teaching of the Priests, for much of it concerns things that fall within their area of responsibility – the korbanot (sacrifices), ritual impurity and ways in which it is removed, and the Yom Kippur purification ritual. This week’s initial parasha describes the different types of sacrifices that were to be brought by individuals.

The olah, burnt offering, was completely consumed by the flames on the altar, except for the animal’s hide. An olah could be of cattle, sheep, goats, birds, or even grain, depending on the donor’s means. Only part of the minhah, grain offering, was burned on the altar. The remainder was given to the priests to eat. There were two types of minhah – the communal grain offering made on Shabbat and festivals and the individual offering brought by those too poor to afford an animal for an olah. The zevah sh’lamim, offering of well-being, was only partially burned. After the designated portions were removed and placed on the altar, the rest became a sacred meal shared by the donors and the priests. A person who committed a sin accidentally or unknowingly was to bring a hattat, a sin or purification offering. A hattat also was to be offered by the elders when the entire community committed an inadvertent sin. Finally, the asham, guilt offering, was to be brought when a person was unsure if he had sinned or when he wanted to make amends for a sin previously committed against another person. In the latter case, the asham was in addition to making restitution and paying a fine to the person who had been wronged.

1. But I Didn't Mean It!

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them. (Leviticus 4:1-2)

  1. Even a sin committed through error is a sin... According to rabbinical tradition there are two kinds of sin through error: (1) Error with respect to the law, that is, he was ignorant of the fact that the act was prohibited by law... (2) Error with respect to the act, that is, although he knew that the act was prohibited by law, he did not realize, through negligence, that he was performing the act that the law prohibited. The sinner through error needs atonement, because he did not take the proper care. (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, 1843-1921, Germany)
  2. We may note therefore that it is no excuse that the sinner had no evil intention and that it was merely forgetfulness, just carelessness and irresponsibility on his part. (Nehama Leibowitz, “Studies in Vayikra,” p. 29)
  3. The reason why it is necessary for sacrifices to be brought for the soul of the inadvertent offender is because every iniquity gives rise to some spiritual blemish in the soul, which will only merit appearing before its maker when it is free from all sin. Were it not for this limitation, any fool would enjoy the privilege of coming before Him. For this reason, the soul of the inadvertent offender is required to offer a sacrifice conferring on it the opportunity of drawing near to the God who gave it. (Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), 1194-1270, Spain)
  4. You shall set aside three cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess... so that any manslayer may have a place to flee to... For instance, a man goes with his neighbor into a grove to cut wood; as his hand swings the ax to cut down a tree, the ax-head flies off the handle and strikes the other so that he dies. That man shall flee to one of these cities and live. (Deuteronomy 19:2-5)

Sparks for Discussion

Why is the unwitting sinner required to bring a sacrifice? Should sin be judged by the sinner’s actions or his intentions? The rabbis understand that this commandment applies only to doing something that is prohibited, a sin of commission. What about sins of omission – failing to do something that is required? Which type of sin do you think is more serious?

The Torah prescribes the death penalty for deliberate murder and exile to one of the cities of refuge for accidental manslaughter. The passage from Deuteronomy gives the example of manslaughter due to a completely unforeseeable freak accident. Why do you think the Torah insists that the man who wielded the ax must be exiled? How would you judge this case?

2. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

When it is a chieftain who incurs guilt by doing unwittingly any of the things that by the commandment of the Lord his God ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt. (Leviticus 4:22)

  1. Regarding the high priest, it says (4:3) “If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt.” And again, regarding the people as a whole, the Torah says (4:13), “If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred.” Why, then, in regard to the ruler, does the Torah say, “When it is a chieftain who incurs guilt.” The answer is that it is almost impossible for someone in a ruling position not to sin as a direct result of exercising his power. (Itturei Torah (Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg), 1900-1963, Poland and Israel)
  2. An acknowledged leader must be even more careful than ordinary people not to fall into the trap of wrongdoing. Even sins committed unintentionally may lead others to do evil, for others are eager to point to such a person as their example when they sin. (Rabbi Jacob ben Jacob Moses of Lissa, 1760-1832, Poland)
  3. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said: Fortunate (ashrei, playing on asher) is the generation whose ruler brings a sin offering for his unwitting sin. If the ruler brings an offering then need we speak of the common person? And if for his sin through error he brings an offering, need we speak of his willful transgression? (Talmud Horayot 10b)
  4. Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant taught: What special merit does a generation have when the ruler of its time brings an offering for an unwitting sin? As is known, a person does not consider it a duty to bring such an offering. This is particularly so with a ruler who is elevated above the people and is often arrogant, since everything is permitted to a ruler and there is no one to question this ruler’s actions. That is why Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai teaches us that when the ruler of the people brings an offering for a sin and does not hide any failures, this testifies as to the greatness of the generation. The people did not flatter the errant ruler but pointed out the offense, assisting the ruler to do penance. Such an insightful generation is worthy of all praise because it is not only influenced by their leader but exerts an influence on their leader too, ensuring that all travel the right path. (Simcha Raz, “The Torah’s Seventy Faces: Commentaries on the Weekly Sidrah,” edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 175)

Sparks for Discussion

Rabbinic tradition understands the “chieftain” of this verse to be the king. Our commentators see the use of “when” here as an indication that it is inevitable that the king will sin unwittingly. Why? Why is it so important that a ruler publicly acknowledge his errors? How might you apply this idea to our modern elected leaders?

Rabbi Jacob of Lissa suggests that the reason for this commandment is that rulers serve as role models. Do you believe that today’s role models – not only government officials, but sports stars, actors and musicians, and others – tend to behave as if they were above the law? How can we teach young people, in particular, to separate their heroes’ accomplishments from their sins?

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