In the fifth perek of Parshas Vayikra, we read about the korban oleh veyored – the variable sin-offering, whose substance is dependent on the financial status of the sinner. Although a sin-offering (korban chatas) generally consists of a sheep or goat, for certain sins the Torah prescribes that a rich person must bring an animal, a poor person can bring a pair of birds instead, and the poorest of the poor can make do with a mincha of mere flour. The Torah specifies only three sins that merit this special treatment. First, shevu’as ha’edus, the sin of a witness refusing to testify in a civil case when subpoenaed under oath. Second, tumas mikdash vekodshav, the sin of a tamei person entering the Beis HaMikdash or eating korbanos in his state of tumah. Lastly, shevuas bituy, the sin of violating one’s oath.
The commentaries are puzzled by why these three sins are specifically singled out by the Torah for flexible atonement options, while all other serious sins require an expensive animal korban. Many commentaries agree with the general approach of the Ramban, who explains that these three sins are less severe than the others discussed in this parsha. Ramban explains that the first and third sins are less severe because although they involve a violation of an oath, they do not incur the penalty of kares, and the second is less severe because although kares is incurred, the sinner had good intentions and was trying to come close to Hashem through the Mikdash at the time of his sin. (See also Chizkuni and Ibn Ezra.)
Perhaps, though, there is room to suggest a homiletical interpretation which would shed further light on this perplexing phenomenon. If we seek out the common denominator of these three sins, we notice that they are all specific obligations or prohibitions that apply only to particular individuals, who find themselves in specific circumstances. Unlike most of the prohibitions of the Torah, which are universal and apply equally to all Jews, these three represent special burdens imposed on specific people. The obligation to testify applies only to someone who happened to witness a crime or similar event, the obligation to avoid the Mikdash and korbanos applies only to someone who happened to become tamei, and the obligation to fulfill an oath devolves only upon someone who has voluntarily sworn an oath.
We may suggest that these sins specifically represent the special obligations that each of us has as an individual with a unique background and potential. Sometimes, like the tamei individual who must stay away from the Mikdash, we have our limits and disabilities, and we must remember not to attempt those goals which are beyond our reach. At other times, like the subpoenaed witness, we find ourselves in a situation which gives us greater responsibility, and we have to recognize the obligation to live up to that responsibility. If someone turns to me, as the litigant does to the witness, because I am the only one who can help him, then I must conclude that Hashem put me in this position because He wants me to be His emissary to relieve suffering and bring goodness into the world. If I am approached by the community because I have the power to help bolster the observance of Torah and perpetuation of our mesorah, then I must feel the obligation to contribute, and not make the excuse that I am doing as much as the next guy.
Even more radical is the obligation hinted at by the third sin mentioned in this context, the voluntary oath. This oath represents a voluntarily accepted obligation to do more that the Torah requires of me, because I sense that I have the potential to strive for loftier spiritual heights and use my unique talents and potential to do great things. The Torah cannot specify to each individual what he is able to accomplish using his unique abilities and strengths, but the Torah does hint to us that when we recognize this potential and accept upon ourselves the unique mission that Hashem has in mind for us, there is no going back, and we sin if we become yet another face in the crowd and lose sight of our uniqueness. (As a matter of practical halacha though, while we should always strive to do more mitzvos and help others, in order to avoid serious transgression, we refrain from swearing, and we add “bli neder” when discussing voluntary commitments.)