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.
Rabbi Renni S. Altman is the Associate Dean and Director of the Rabbinical Program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.