My son and daughter are playing together when, suddenly, cries are heard: My son has hit my daughter. "Was it an accident or on purpose?" I ask. If it was on purpose, my son is told to apologize and then is punished. The intention is, of course, to teach him that he has done something wrong and that he should not do it again. Through such experiences, my son learns that there are consequences for bad behavior. If, on the other hand, my son's hitting his sister was truly an accident, he is required to apologize because he hurt her, but no further action is taken.
We learn in this week's parashah, Vayikra, that such a response to inappropriate accidental behavior might, in fact, be misguided. The Torah teaches us that we must atone for even unintentional sins: A simple apology is not enough to reinforce the sense of accountability that we should have for all our actions.
In Leviticus 4 we read about the chatat, the sin offering, that the Israelites were required to bring when they had transgressed a known commandment as well as when they had committed an unintentional sin, either because of their ignorance of the commandments or through carelessness or oversight. In the latter instance, everyone in the Israelite community was obligated to bring a sin offering, even the High Priest.
In contrast to many of us today, our ancestors understood that they were responsible for all their actions, whether intentional or not. In his commentary on Leviticus, Baruch Levine explains that according to ancient cultic belief systems, guilt exists regardless of the perpetrator's awareness of having committed a sin. Guilt, as it were, has a life of its own, and only an act of expiation can wipe it away. Thus we learn in Sefer Hachinuch, a thirteenth-century work that discusses the commandments and their purpose, "When a man [sic] sins, he cannot cleanse his heart merely by uttering, between himself and the wall, 'I have sinned and will never repeat it.' Only by doing an overt act to atone for his sin, by taking rams from his enclosures and troubling himself to bring them to the Temple, give them to the priest, and perform the entire rite as prescribed for sin offerings, only then will he impress upon his soul the extent of the evil of his sin and take measures to avoid it in the future."
Perhaps we ought not be so cavalier with regard to unintentional sins. Are we no less responsible for our actions than our ancestors were over three thousand years ago? If we had to pay a price for our unintentional sins—perhaps having to put some coins into a tzedakah box every time we sin—we, too, might become more conscious of our words and our deeds and make a greater effort not to sin in the future, even unintentionally.
For Further Reading
Studies in Vayikra, Nechama Leibowitz, World Zionist Organization, 1980.
The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, Commentary by Baruch A. Levine, Philadelphia: JPS, 1989.
Al cheit shechatanu lifanecha b'zadon oovishgagah, "For the sin we have committed against you consciously or unconsciously." These words from the Yom Kippur liturgy, as translated in Gates of Repentance, reflect two kinds of sin in the Jewish tradition—intentional and unintentional. More important, they make a presumption about human behavior, namely, that sometimes we do bad things on purpose and sometimes we do them accidentally. That is, sometimes we follow our inclination to do evil and sometimes we follow our inclination to do good but still err and do evil.
This week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayikra, is concerned only with those sins that we do unconsciously or inadvertently. The portion gives the details for offering a number of sacrifices, including the chatat (sin offering), but does not address the scenario of intentional sin. The first three chapters are about free will offerings, and the next two provide the ritual remedy for unintentional sins.
The placement of the ritual response to inadvertent sins at the beginning of Leviticus underscores their relative importance in priestly theology. According to Jacob Milgrom in his commentary on Leviticus, chapters 1 through 16 (part of the Anchor Bible Series), inadvertent sins can make us impure and can lead to our expelling God from the Sanctuary. Thus we learn that even when we are merely careless or insensitive in our treatment of others, we risk spiritual impurity and banishing God from our presence.
Jewish tradition (especially the biblical prophets) teaches us that God cares about how human beings interact with one another. To motivate us to treat one another well all the time, we must believe that God takes an interest in such matters, that the quality of our relationship with the Divine is linked to our worldly relationships. We must be aware that when we jeopardize our relationships with our family, friends, and coworkers, we also harm our relationship with God.
With the exception of a few spiteful people (we can all probably think of at least one), most of us do not set out to hurt others. Yet when we sin against other people inadvertently, we still do damage. Both the Yom Kippur liturgy and Parashat Vayikra address this danger. May these reminders inspire us to be more careful in the course of each day so that we avoid committing unintentional sins when possible. And when we do commit such sins, may we atone in a way that purifies both our hearts and our relationships.
Questions for Discussion
- Has an unintentional sin ever injured your relationship with another person? How were you affected by that event?
- Can you suggest some reasons why Parashat Vayikra does not address intentional sins?
Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1–5:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 757–778; Revised Edition, pp. 658–681;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 569–592