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September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Maggid Books’

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: The Fear Of Freedom

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

The episode of the spies has rightly puzzled commentators throughout the centuries. How could they have got it so wrong? The land, they said, was as Moses had promised. It was indeed “flowing with milk and honey.” But conquering it was impossible. “The people who live there are powerful, and the cities fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of the giant there … We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are … All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the titans there … We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we seemed in theirs” (Numbers 13:28-33).

They were terrified of the inhabitants of the land, and entirely failed to realize that the inhabitants were terrified of them. Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho, tells the spies sent by Joshua a generation later: “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you … our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2: 10-11).

The truth was the exact opposite of the spies’ report. The inhabitants feared the Israelites more than the Israelites feared the inhabitants. We hear this at the start of the story of Bilam: “Now Balak, son of Zippor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites.” Earlier the Israelites themselves had sung at the Red Sea: “The people of Canaan will melt away; terror and dread will fall on them” (Exodus 15:15-16).

How then did the spies err so egregiously? Did they misinterpret what they saw? Did they lack faith in God? Did they – more likely – lack faith in themselves? Or was it simply, as Maimonides argues in The Guide for the Perplexed, that their fear was inevitable given their past history? They had spent most of their lives as slaves. Only recently had they acquired their freedom. They were not yet ready to fight a prolonged series of battles and establish themselves as a free people in their own land. That would take a new generation, born in freedom. Humans change, but not that quickly (Guide III, 32).

Most of the commentators assume that the spies were guilty of a failure of nerve or faith – or both. It is hard to read the text otherwise. However, in the chassidic literature – from the Baal Shem Tov to Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (Sefat Emet) to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn – an entirely different line of interpretation emerged, reading the text against the grain to dramatic effect so that it remains relevant and powerful today. According to their interpretation, the spies were well intentioned. They were, after all, “princes, chieftains, leaders” (Numbers 13:2-3). They did not doubt that Israel could win its battles with the inhabitants of the land. They did not fear failure; they feared success. Their concern was not physical but spiritual. They did not want to leave the wilderness. They did not want to become just another nation among the nations of the earth. They did not want to lose their unique relationship with God in the reverberating silence of the desert, far removed from civilization and its discontents.

Here they were close to God, closer than any generation before or since. He was a palpable presence in the Sanctuary in their midst, and in the clouds of glory that surrounded them. Here His people ate manna from heaven and water from the rock and experienced miracles daily. So long as they stayed in the desert under God’s sheltering canopy, they did not need to plow the earth, plant seeds, gather harvests, defend a country, run an economy, maintain a welfare system, or shoulder any of the other earthly burdens and distractions that take peoples’ minds away from the Divine.

Here, in no-man’s-land, in liminal space, suspended between past and future, they were able to live with a simplicity and directness of encounter they could not hope to find once they had reentered the gravitational pull of everyday life in the material world. Paradoxically, since a desert is normally the exact opposite of a garden, the wilderness was the Israelites’ Eden. Here they were as close to God as were the first humans before their loss of innocence.

Sages And Saints

Friday, June 1st, 2012

There was an ongoing debate between the Sages as to whether the nazirite – whose laws are outlined in this week’s parshah – was to be praised. Recall that the nazirite was someone who voluntarily, usually for a specified period, undertook a special form of holiness. This meant that he was forbidden to consume wine or any grape products, to have a haircut, and to defile himself by contact with the dead.

Naziriteship was essentially a renunciation of desire. Why someone would choose to do this is not clear. It may be that he wanted to protect himself against drunkenness or to cure himself of alcoholism. It could be that he wanted to experience a higher form of holiness. Forbidden as he was to have contact with the dead, even for a close relative, he was in this respect in the same position as the high priest. Becoming a nazirite was one way in which a non-kohen could adopt kohen-like behavior. Some Sages argued that the juxtaposition of the law of the nazirite with that of the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery, hinted at the fact that there were people who became nazirites to protect themselves from sexual immorality. Alcohol suppresses inhibitions and increases sexual desire.

Be that as it may, there were mixed views on whether it was a good thing or a bad one to become a nazirite. On the one hand, the Torah calls him “holy to God” (Numbers 6:8). On the other, at the completion of his period of abstinence, he is commanded to bring a sin offering (Numbers 6:13-14). From this, Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar Berebi drew the following inference:

What is the meaning of the phrase in Numbers 6:11, “and make atonement for him, because he sinned against the soul” (usually translated as “by coming into contact with the dead”)? Against which soul did he sin? We must conclude that it refers to denying himself the enjoyment of wine. From this we may infer that if one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life. It follows that one who keeps fasting is called a sinner (Ta’anit 11a; Nedarim 10a).

Clearly Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar is engaging in a polemic against asceticism in Jewish life. We do not know which groups he may have had in mind. Many of the early Christians were ascetics. So in some respects were the members of the Qumran sect known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls. Holy people in many faiths have chosen, in pursuit of spiritual purity, to withdraw from the world’s pleasures and temptations, while fasting, afflicting themselves and living in caves, retreats or monasteries.

In the Middle Ages there were Jews who adopted self-denying practices – among them the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the Pietists of Northern Europe, and many Jews in Islamic lands. It is hard not to see in these patterns of behavior at least some influence from the non-Jewish environment. The Hassidei Ashkenaz who flourished during the time of the Crusades lived among deeply pious, self-mortifying Christians. Their southern counterparts would have been familiar with Sufism, the mystical movement in Islam.

The ambivalence of Jews toward the life of self-denial may therefore lie in the suspicion that it entered Judaism from the outside. There were movements in the first centuries of the Common Era in both the West (Greece) and the East (Iran) that saw the physical world as a place of corruption and strife. They were dualists, holding that the true God was not the creator of the universe and could not be reached within the universe. The physical world was the work of a lesser, and evil, deity. Hence holiness means withdrawing from the physical world, its pleasures, appetites and desires. The two best-known movements to hold this view were Gnosticism in the West and Manichaeism in the East. So at least some of the negative evaluation of the nazirite may have been driven by a desire to discourage Jews from imitating non-Jewish tendencies in Christianity and Islam.

What is remarkable is the position of Maimonides, who holds both views – positive and negative. In Hilchot De’ot, the Laws of Ethical Character, Maimonides adopts the negative position of Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar: “A person may say: ‘Desire, honor and the like are bad paths to follow and remove a person from the world; therefore I will completely separate myself from them and go to the other extreme.’ As a result, he does not eat meat or drink wine or take a wife or live in a decent house or wear decent clothing… This too is bad, and it is forbidden to choose this way” (Hilchot De’ot 3:1).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Holy People In The Holy Land

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

I had been engaged in dialogue for two years with an imam from the Middle East, a gentle and seemingly moderate man. One day, in the middle of our conversation, he turned to me and asked, “Why do you Jews need a land? After all, Judaism is a religion, not a country or a nation.”

I decided at that point to discontinue the dialogue. There are 56 Islamic states and more than 100 nations in which Christians form the majority of the population. There is only one Jewish state, 1/25th the size of France, roughly the same size as the Kruger National Park in South Africa. With those who believe that Jews, alone among the nations of the world, are not entitled to their own land, it is hard to hold a conversation.

Yet the question is worth exploring. There is no doubt, as D.J. Clines explains in his book, The Theme of the Pentateuch, that the central narrative of the Torah is the promise of and journey to the land of Israel. Yet why is this so? Why did the people of the covenant need their own land? Why was Judaism not, on the one hand, a religion that can be practiced by individuals wherever they happen to be, or on the other, a religion like Christianity or Islam whose ultimate purpose is to convert the world so that everyone can practice the one true faith?

The best way of approaching an answer is through an important comment of the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi; born Gerona, 1194, died in Israel, 1270) on this week’s parshah. Chapter 18 contains a list of forbidden sexual practices. It ends with this solemn warning:

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. The land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws … If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Leviticus 18:24-28).

The Ramban asks the obvious question. Reward and punishment in the Torah are based on the principle of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. The punishment must fit the sin or crime. It makes sense to say that if the Israelites neglected or broke mitzvot hateluyot ba’aretz, the commands relating to the land of Israel, the punishment would be exile from the land of Israel. So the Torah says in the curses in Parshat Bechukotai: “All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it” (Leviticus 26:35). This means: This will be the punishment for not observing the laws of shemittah, the sabbatical year. Shemittah is a command relating to the land. Therefore the punishment for its non-observance is exile from the land.

But sexual offenses have nothing to do with the land. They are mitzvot hateluyot baguf, commands relating to person, not place. Ramban answers by stating that all the commands are intrinsically related to the land of Israel. It is simply not the same to put on tefillin or keep kashrut or observe Shabbat in the Diaspora as in Israel. To support his position he quotes the Talmud (Ketubot 110b) that says, “Whoever lives outside the land is as if he had no God” and the Sifre that states, “Living in the land of Israel is of equal importance to all the commandments of the Torah.” The Torah is the constitution of a holy people in the holy land.

Ramban explains this mystically but we can understand it non-mystically by reflecting on the opening chapters of the Torah and the story told about the human condition and about God’s disappointment with the only species – us – He created in His image. God sought a humanity that would freely choose to do the will of its Creator. Humanity chose otherwise. Adam and Eve sinned. Cain murdered his brother Abel. Within a short time “the earth was filled with violence” and God “regretted that he had made human beings on earth.” He brought a flood and began again, this time with the righteous Noah. But again humans disappointed by building a city with a tower on which they sought to reach heaven, and God chose another way of bringing humanity to recognize him – this time not by universal rules (though these remained, namely the covenant with all humanity through Noah), but by a living example: Abraham, Sarah, and their children.

In Genesis 18 the Torah makes clear what God sought from Abraham: that he would teach his children and his household after him “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” Homo sapiens is, as both Aristotle and Maimonides said, a social animal, and righteousness and justice are features of a good society. We know from the story of Noah and the ark that righteous individuals can save themselves but not the society in which they live, unless they transform the society in which they live.

The Evils Of Evil Speech

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

It was the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, that translated tzara’at, the condition whose identification and cleansing occupies much of Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora as lepra, giving rise to a long tradition identifying it with leprosy.

That tradition is now widely acknowledged to be incorrect. First, the condition described in the Torah simply does not fit the symptoms of leprosy. Second, the Torah applies it not only to various skin conditions but also to mildew on clothes and the walls of houses, which certainly rules out any known disease. The Rambam puts it best: “Tzara’at is a comprehensive term covering a number of dissimilar conditions. Thus whiteness in a person’s skin is called tzara’at. The falling off of some of his hair on the head or the chin is called tzara’at. A change of color in garments or in houses is called tzara’at” (Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 16:10).

Seeking to identify the nature of the phenomenon, the Sages sought for clues elsewhere in the Torah and found them readily available. Miriam was smitten by tzara’at for speaking badly about her brother Moses (Numbers 12:10). The Torah later gives special emphasis to this event, seeing in it a warning for all generations: “Be careful with regard to the plague of tzara’at … Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:8-9).

It was, in other words, no normal phenomenon but a specific divine punishment for lashon hara, evil speech. The rabbis drew attention to the verbal similarity between metzora, a person afflicted by the condition, and motzi shem ra, someone guilty of slander.

Rambam, on the basis of rabbinic traditions, gives a brilliant account of why tzara’at afflicted both inanimate objects like walls and clothes, and human beings:

It [tzara’at] was a sign and wonder among the Israelites to warn them against slanderous speaking. For if a man uttered slander, the walls of his house would suffer a change. If he repented, the house would again become clean. But if he continued in his wickedness until the house was torn down, leather objects in his house on which he sat or lay would suffer a change. If he repented they would again become clean. But if he continued in his wickedness until they were burned, the garments that he wore would suffer a change. If he repented they would again become clean. But if he continued in his wickedness until they were burned, his skin would suffer a change and he would become infected by tzara’at and be set apart and alone until he no more engaged in the conversation of the wicked, which is scoffing and slander (Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 16:10).

The most compelling illustration of what the tradition is speaking about when it talks of the gravity of motsi shem ra (slander) and lashon hara (evil speech) is Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. Iago, a high-ranking soldier, is bitterly resentful of Othello, a Moorish general in the army of Venice. Othello has promoted a younger man, Cassio, over the more experienced Iago, who is determined to take revenge. He does so in a prolonged and vicious campaign, which involves, among other things, tricking Othello into the suspicion that his wife, Desdemona, is having an adulterous affair with Cassio. Othello asks Iago to kill Cassio, and he himself kills Desdemona, smothering her in her bed. Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant, discovers her mistress dead and as Othello explains why he has killed her, realizes the nature of her husband’s plot and exposes it. Othello, in guilt and grief, commits suicide, while Iago is arrested and taken to be tortured and possibly executed.

It is a play entirely about the evil of slander and suspicion, and portrays literally what the sages said figuratively, that “Evil speech kills three people: the one who says it, the one who listens to it, and the one about whom it is said” (Arachin 15b).

Shakespeare’s tragedy makes it painfully clear how much evil speech lives in the dark corners of suspicion. Had the others known what Iago was saying to stir up fear and distrust, the facts might have become known and the tragedy averted. As it was, he was able to mislead the various characters, playing on their emotional weaknesses and envy, getting each to believe the worst about one another. It ends in serial bloodshed and disaster.

Hence the poetic justice Jewish tradition attributes to one of the least poetic of biblical passages, the laws relating to skin diseases and mildew. The slanderer spreads his lies in private, but his evil is exposed in public. First the walls of his house proclaim his sin, then the leather objects on which he sits, then his clothes, and eventually his skin itself. He is condemned to the humiliation of isolation:

“Unclean! Unclean!” he must call out … Since he is unclean, he must remain alone, and his place shall be outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46). Said the rabbis: Because his words separated husband from wife and brother from brother, his punishment is that he is separated from human contact and made an outcast from society (Arachin 16b).

At its highest, WikiLeaks aims at being today’s functional equivalent of the law of the metzora: an attempt to make public the discreditable things people do and say in private. The Sages said about evil speech that it was as bad as idolatry, incest and murder combined, and it was Shakespeare’s genius to show us one dramatic way in which it can contaminate human relationships, turning people against one another with tragic consequences.

From Structure To Continuity To Spontaneity

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Parshat Shemini tells the tragic story of how the great inauguration of the Tabernacle, a day about which the Sages said that God rejoiced as much as he had at the creation of the universe, was overshadowed by the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu:

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which [God] had not instructed them [to offer]. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Many explanations were given by the Sages and later commentators as to what Nadav and Avihu’s sin actually was. But the simplest answer, given by the Torah itself here and elsewhere (Numbers 3:4, 26:61), is that they acted on their own initiative. They did what they had not been commanded. They acted spontaneously, perhaps out of sheer enthusiasm in the mood of the moment, offering “unauthorized fire.” Evidently it is dangerous to act spontaneously in matters of the spirit.

But is it? Moses acted spontaneously in far more fraught circumstances when he shattered the tablets of stone on seeing the Israelites cavorting around the Golden Calf. The tablets – hewn and engraved by God himself – were perhaps the holiest objects there have ever been. Yet Moses was not punished for his act. The Sages said that though he acted of his own accord without first consulting God, God assented to his act. Rashi refers to this moment in his very last comment on the Torah, whose last verse (Deuteronomy 34:12) speaks about “all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel”:

This refers to when Moses took the liberty of shattering the tablets before their eyes, as it is said: “I shattered them before your eyes.” The Holy One, Blessed be He consented to his opinion, for it is said, “which you shattered … More power to you for shattering them!”

Why then was spontaneity wrong for Nadav and Avihu, yet right for Moshe Rabbeinu? The answer is that Nadav and Avihu were kohanim, priests. Moses was a navi, a prophet. These are two different forms of religious leadership. They involve different tasks and different sensibilities, indeed different approaches to time itself.

The kohen serves God in a way that never changes over time (except, of course, when the Temple was destroyed and its service, presided over by the kohanim, came to an end). The prophet serves God in a way that is constantly changing over time. When people are at ease the prophet warns of forthcoming catastrophe. When they suffer catastrophe and are in the depths of despair, the prophet brings consolation and hope.

The words said by the kohen are always the same. The priestly blessing uses the same words today as it did in the days of Moses and Aaron. But the words used by a prophet are never the same. “No two prophets use the same style” (Sanhedrin 89a). So for a prophet, spontaneity is of the essence. But for the kohen engaged in Divine service, it is completely out of place.

Why the difference? After all, the priest and the prophet were serving the same God. The Torah uses a kind of device we have only recently reinvented in a somewhat different form. Stereophonic sound – sound coming from two different speakers – was developed in the 1930s to give the impression of audible perspective. In the 1950s 3D film was developed to do for sight what stereo had done for sound. From the work of Pierre Broca in the 1860s to today, using MRI and PET scans, neuroscientists have striven to understand how our bicameral brain allows us to respond more intelligently to our environment than would otherwise have been possible. Twin perspectives are needed fully to experience reality.

The twin perspectives of the priest and prophet correspond to the twin perspectives on creation represented, respectively, by Genesis 1:1-2:3 (spoken in the priestly voice, with an emphasis on order, structure, divisions and boundaries), and Genesis 2:4-3:24 (spoken in the prophetic voice, with an emphasis on the nuances and dynamics of interpersonal relationships).

Now let us consider one other area in which there was an ongoing argument between structure and spontaneity, namely tefillah (specifically the Amidah). We know that after the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Gamliel and his court at Yavneh established a standard text for the weekday Amidah, comprising 18 (later 19) blessings in a precise order (Mishnah Berachot 4:3).

Not everyone, however, agreed. Rabbi Joshua held that individuals could say an abridged form of the Amidah. According to some interpretations, Rabbi Eliezer was opposed to a fixed text altogether and held that one should, each day, say something new (Yerushalmi Berachot 4).

Tackling Tomorrow’s Problems

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

In her book The Watchman’s Rattle, subtitled Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, Rebecca Costa delivers a fascinating account of how civilizations die. Their problems become too complex. Societies reach what she calls a cognitive threshold. They simply can’t chart a path from the present to the future.

The example she gives is the Mayans. For a period of three and a half thousand years, between 2,600 BCE and 900 CE, they developed an extraordinary civilization, spreading over what is today Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize, with an estimated population of 15 million people.

Not only were they master potters, weavers, architects and farmers. They developed an intricate cylindrical calendar system, with celestial charts to track the movements of the stars and predict weather patterns. They had their own unique form of writing, as well as an advanced mathematical system. Most impressively they developed a water-supply infrastructure involving a complex network of reservoirs, canals, dams and levees.

Then suddenly, for reasons we still don’t fully understand, the entire system collapsed. Sometime between the middle of the eighth and ninth century the majority of the Mayan people simply disappeared. There have been many theories as to why it happened. It may have been a prolonged drought, overpopulation, internecine wars, a devastating epidemic, food shortages, or a combination of these and other factors. One way or another, having survived for 35 centuries, Mayan civilization failed and became extinct.

Rebecca Costa’s argument is that whatever the causes, the Mayan collapse, like the fall of the Roman Empire and the Khmer Empire of 13th-century Cambodia, occurred because problems became too many and complicated for the people of that time and place to solve. There was cognitive overload, and systems broke down.

It can happen to any civilization. It may, she says, be happening to ours. The first sign of breakdown is gridlock. Instead of dealing with what everyone can see are major problems, people continue as usual and simply pass their problems on to the next generation. The second sign is a retreat into irrationality. Since people can no longer cope with the facts, they take refuge in religious consolations. The Mayans took to offering sacrifices.

Archeologists have uncovered gruesome evidence of human sacrifice on a vast scale. It seems that, unable to solve their problems rationally, the Mayans focused on placating the gods by manically making offerings to them. So apparently did the Khmer.

Which makes the case of Jews and Judaism fascinating. They faced two centuries of crisis under Roman rule between Pompey’s conquest in 63 BCE and the collapse of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE. They were hopelessly factionalized. Long before the Great Rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews were expecting some major cataclysm.

What is remarkable is that they did not focus obsessively on sacrifices, like the Mayans and the Khmer. Instead they focused on finding substitutes for sacrifice. One was gemillat chassadim, acts of kindness. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai comforted Rabbi Joshua, who wondered how Israel would atone for its sins without sacrifices, with the words, “My son, we have another atonement as effective as this: acts of kindness, as it is written in Hosea 6:6, ‘I desire kindness and not sacrifice’ ” (Avot deRabbi Natan 8).

Another was Torah study. The Sages interpreted Malachi’s words (1:11), “In every place offerings are presented to My name,” as referring to scholars who study the laws of sacrifice (Menachot 100a). “One who recites the order of sacrifices is as if he had brought them” (Ta’anit 27b).

Another was prayer. Hosea had said, “Take words with you and return to the Lord … We will offer our lips as sacrifices of bulls” (Hosea 14:2-3), implying that words could take the place of sacrifice. “He who prays in the house of prayer is as if he brought a pure oblation” (Yerushalmi Berachot).

Yet another was teshuvah. Psalms (51:19) says, “The sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit.” From this the sages inferred that “if a person repents it is accounted to him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem and built the Temple and the altar, and offered on it all the sacrifices ordained in the Torah” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:2).

A fifth was fasting. Since going without food diminished a person’s fat and blood, it counted as a substitute for the fat and blood of a sacrifice (Berachot 17a). A sixth was hospitality. “As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a person’s table atones for him” (Berachot 55a). And so on.

What is striking in hindsight is how, rather than clinging obsessively to the past, sages like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai thought forward to a worst-case-scenario future. The great question raised in Parshat Tzav, which is all about different kinds of sacrifice, is not, “Why were sacrifices commanded in the first place?” but rather, given how central they were to the religious life of Israel in Temple times, how did Judaism survive without them?

Making Sense Of The Sin Offering

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/making-sense-of-the-sin-offering/2012/03/22/

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