Parshat Vayikra, which deals with a variety of sacrifices, devotes an extended section to the chatat, the sin offering, as brought by different individuals: first the high priest (Leviticus 4:3-12), then the community as a whole (4:13-21), then a leader (4:22-26), and finally an ordinary individual (4:27-35).
The whole passage sounds strange to modern ears, not only because sacrifices have not been offered for almost two millennia since the destruction of the Second Temple, but also because it is hard for us to understand the very concepts of sin and atonement as they are dealt with in the Torah.
The puzzle is that the sins for which an offering had to be brought were those committed inadvertently, be’shogeg. Either the sinner had forgotten the law, or some relevant fact. Here’s a contemporary example: suppose the phone rings on Shabbat and you answer it. You would only be liable for a sin offering if either you forgot the law that you may not answer a phone on Shabbat, or you forgot the fact that the day was Shabbat. For a moment you thought it was Friday or Sunday.
It’s just this kind of act that we don’t see as a sin at all. It was a mistake. You forgot. You did not mean to do anything wrong. And when you realize that inadvertently you have broken Shabbat, you are more likely to feel regret than remorse. You feel sorry but not guilty.
We think of a sin as something we did intentionally, yielding to temptation perhaps, or in a moment of rebellion. That is what Jewish law calls b’zadon in biblical Hebrew or b’mezid in rabbinic Hebrew. That is the kind of act we would have thought calls for a sin offering. But actually such an act cannot be atoned for by an offering at all. So how do we make sense of the sin offering?
The answer is that there are three dimensions of wrongdoing between us and God. The first is guilt and shame. When we sin deliberately and intentionally, we know inwardly that we have done wrong. Our conscience – the voice of God within the human heart – tells us that we have done wrong. That is what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden after they had sinned. They felt shame. They tried to hide. For that kind of deliberate, conscious, intentional sin, the only adequate moral response is teshuvah, repentance. This involves (a) remorse, charatah, (b) confession, vidui, and (c) kabbalat he’atid, a resolution never to commit the sin again. The result is selichah u’mechilah – leading, hopefully for God’s forgiveness. A mere sacrifice is not enough.
However, there is a second dimension. Regardless of guilt and responsibility, if we commit a sin we have objectively transgressed a boundary. The word chet means to miss the mark, to stray, to deviate from the proper path. We have committed an act that somehow disturbs the moral balance of the world. To take a secular example, imagine that your car has a faulty speedometer. You are caught driving at 50 miles per hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone. You tell the policeman who stops you that you didn’t know. Your speedometer was only showing 30 miles per hour. He may sympathize, but you have still broken the law, transgressed the limit, and you will still have to pay the penalty.
That is what a sin offering is. According to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch it is a penalty for carelessness. According to the Sefer HaChinuch it is an educational and preventive measure. Deeds, in Judaism, are the way we train the mind. The fact that you have had to pay the price by bringing a sacrifice will make you take greater care in the future.
Rabbi Isaac Arama (Spain, 15th century) says that the difference between an intentional and an unintentional sin is that in the former case, both the body and the soul were at fault. In the case of an unintentional sin only the body was at fault, not the soul. Therefore a physical sacrifice helps, since it was only the physical act of the body that was in the wrong. A physical sacrifice cannot atone for a deliberate sin, because it cannot rectify a wrong in the soul.
What the sacrifice achieves is kapparah, not forgiveness as such but a covering over, or obliteration, of the sin. Noah was told to “cover” (vechapharta) the surface of the ark with pitch (Genesis 6:14). The cover of the ark in the Tabernacle was called kaporet (Exodus 25:17). Once a sin has been symbolically covered over, it is forgiven, but as the Malbim points out, in such cases the verb for forgiveness – s-l-ch – is always in the passive (venislach: Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31). The forgiveness is not direct, as it is in the case of repentance, but indirect, a consequence of the sacrifice.