Parashat Vayikra lists some of the basic types of korbanot, of sacrifices, such as the olah, a sacrifice tradition understood as either voluntary or to atone for neglecting to fulfill an obligation; the minhah, flour offering, also a voluntary way of relating to Gd and sometimes a poor person’s version of a sin-offering; the hatat, for the unwitting commission of a sin whose deliberate transgression incurred karet, and more.
Each time I read through the list, I notice how few atone for deliberate or willful sins. There are some, but sacrifices by and large help the unwitting sinner, the person who has failed to do as she or he should, or the one wishing to develop a better relationship with the Creator.
It surprises me in two ways: first, the central sacrifice of Yom Kippur, the goat sent to Azazel to atone for the sins of the Jewish people does cover willful sins (and, for the penitent, even the most serious sins, those incurring capital or karet liability). Second, the prophets frequently complained of the Jewish people’s over investment in sacrifice, their focus on punctilious sacrificial service to the detriment of more significant elements of service of Gd (such as refusing to worship other powers).
I wonder whether the two might be linked. Once a year, the Jewish people gathered to watch the High Priest perform his service. Fasting all day, they would wait for his safe exit from the Holy of Holies, wait for news the red thread tied to the scapegoat had turned white, and would know Gd had forgiven their sins, given them another year to work on what they had failed to achieve the previous year.
A deceptively short step takes us from relief at a doom sidestepped to over reliance on sacrifice as all-healing. At first, perhaps, priests’ adjurations would take hold, a penitent sinner would leave the experience determined to avoid even unwitting sin for the future. After a time, it can become too easy, the cleansing of Yom Kippur so satisfying, giving such a sense of safety, the average person forgets the framework.
Yoma 85b knows of people who make it explicit, assure themselves they will repent later, or Yom Kippur will take care of their sin. The Mishnah warns the idea defeats itself, the thought hindering the effectiveness of repentance or of Yom Kippur.
The prophets saw the process at a later stage, when sacrifices had been converted into a form of magic, where Jews were certain the existence of the Temple, with its various services, protected against defeat in war and certainly could not be destroyed.
It’s one more slippery slope on which we have to live, down which we must be sure not to slide. Gd gave us many ways to atone for sin, all of them magical in the sense we have no right to expect them. Nothing in saying “sorry,” no matter how sincere, earns a free pass from punishment, necessitates expunging one’s record. It is a marker of Gd’s forbearance that sacrifice, repentance, and Yom Kippur, exist at all, each in their own way and to their own extent. Those who blur the line are on an unfortunate path.
Parashat Vayikra was originally said when the Mishkan was a novelty, and gave a set of sacrifices meant to be one part of how Jews maintained and sustained, repaired and rejuvenated, their relationship with Gd. What it became later we know too well. As we embark on reading it again, we can hope to find our way back to those early times, when we employed sacrifice and all the other ways to return to Gd, as Gd gave them, without burdening sacrifice or any of the others with more than they can handle.