• Rav Yaakov Beasley




In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner







By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Our parasha opens a new book of the Torah, one primarily dedicated to the service of the kohanim in the Mishkan.  It discusses many types of sacrifices: the burnt-offering (korban olah), the meal-offering (korban mincha), the peace-offering (korban shelamim), the sin-offering (korban chatat), and the guilt-offering (korban asham).  From among these offerings, whose form, significance, and essence all differ from one another, this week we will restrict ourselves to discussing the korban chatat (4:2, 4, 14, 22, 23, 27).


In his introduction to Sefer Vayikra, Don Yitzchak Abrabanel states that Hashem wished to caution the Jewish people against sinning before Him and against violating His commandments.  As people may sometimes err and do something that they had not intended to do, Hashem decided to punish them through their money; this would make an impact on their sprit and their soul, and they would be careful not to sin again.


In his comments on the korban chatat, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh suggests,[1] unlike the Abrabanel, that the purpose of this offering is not only punitive, but also educational:


…Have I not emphasized repeatedly, that the inclinations of the heart depend upon [a person's] actions.  Therefore, when a man sins, he cannot cleanse his heart merely by uttering, between himself all the wall, 'I have sinned and I 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 Beit Ha-Mikdash, give them to the kohen, 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 he will take measures to avoid it in the future.  We may also add that, in keeping with this principle, Hashem commanded us always to offer up those things that the human heart greatly desires, such as meat, wine, and meal, so that the heart would be aroused by the constant preoccupation with them… Furthermore, the human heart is more deeply touched by animal sacrifices due to the great similarity between man and animal.  The only respect in which the two differ is that man possesses intelligence and the animal does not.  When man sins, intelligence forsakes him at the moment and he enters the category of animal.  Therefore, man is commanded to bring a body most resembling himself, to the place chosen for the elevation of the intelligence [the Beit Ha-Mikdash] and have it burned and completely annihilated there… This will therefore impress upon his heart that his former state of body without has been completely destroyed.  He can rejoice then with the intelligent soul granted to him by Hashem, which is eternal and is the means by which the body comes to life again after death, on condition that he follows the soul's advice and avoids sin.  When man imprints upon his soul this symbolic representation, he will be more apt to guard against sin.  And the Torah has promised, that when the sinner has done this great action and has fully repented, the sin in committed through error will be forgiven.  However, in sins committed intentionally and presumptuously, this symbolic action is inadequate, because he who sins intentionally will not be moved by symbols.  For such as he is "a whip for the bodies of fools."


The Sefer Ha-Chinukh views the korban chatat as an educational act, which is only effective for sins that occurred due to a person's negligence and not for those that are intentional, whereas the Abrabanel's understanding could be applied to both deliberate and accidental sins.  The Sefer Ha-Chinukh refers to a constant theme in his discussion of the axiology of the commandments – that one's heart is drawn after one's actions.  Saying simply that "I have repented and I will not sin again" does not suffice – a person must take many actions to undo the effects of his negligence.  In addition, the choice of the animal sacrifice, which resembles the person in composition with the notable exception of the human faculty for thought, leads the sinner to understand that his sin came about because he did not use his ability to think.  However, this comparison of one's actions to the thoughtless animal cannot apply to a deliberate act, wherein the person was willingly sinning against Hashem.   


While the Sefer Ha-Chinukh explains the symbolism of the offering, what he does not address is the actual sin of the person who erred.  If only forgetfulness or ignorance lies at the fault, why is he held accountable?  Two classic commentators from nineteenth-century Germany suggest that the issue at hand is not the ignorance of the sinner, but his attitude:


The sinner through error is he who sins through carelessness.  In other words, at the moment of omission, he did not take full care, with his whole heart and soul, that his act be in keeping with the Torah and the commandments, because, in the words of the prophet Yeshayahu, he was not ''anxious over My word' (ch. 16).  The lack of anxiety and the lackadaisical unconcern for his way of life - these are the elements of commission in the sin of "omission."  This is the "transgression" (pesha) that resides in the "sin" (het), as it states, "And because of their transgressions [within] all their sins" (Vayikra 16:16).  (Commentary of R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch)


Even a sin committed through error is a sin.  In this respect, the term chet (omission) differs from other terms that denote sin, such as pesha (transgression), in that the latter terms denote only intentional sins whereas the former refers also to unintentional sins.  According to Rabbinical tradition, there are two types of sin through error:  (1) Error with respect to the law – that is, he was ignorant of the fact that the act was prohibited by law or that the sanction of excision (karet) was attached to it by law.  (2)  Error with respect to the act – that is, although he knew that the act was prohibited by law, he did not realize, through negligence, that he was performing the act which the law prohibited.  The sinner through error needs atonement because he did not take the proper care and precaution.  The Jewish people were commanded, "And you shall guard My ordinance" (Vayikra 18:19)… one of the commandments is to guard against deviating from the way of Hashem.  Each person must measure his footsteps, and so arrange them that he always finds himself on the path to Hashem.  Therefore, it is an established rule of the Torah that the sinner through error needs atonement. Not so he who sins unwillingly, from compulsion.  He need bring no offering because ones rachamana patrei – the All merciful absolves one who acted under duress.  (Commentary of R. David Tzvi Hoffmann)


The above commentators view the korban chatat as serving either a punitive or an educational role.  However, in explaining why the Torah uses the word nefesh (soul) to designate a person in this context, as opposed to the word adam (man), the Ramban suggests that the sacrifice serves a therapeutic purpose as well:


"If a soul shall sin through ignorance" (Vayikra 4:2): The reason why it is necessary for sacrifices to be brought for the soul of the inadvertent offender is that every iniquity gives rise to some spiritual blemish in the soul, which will only merit appearing before its Maker when it is free from all sin.  Were it not for this [limitation], any fool would enjoy the privilege of coming before Him.  For this reason, the soul of the inadvertent offender is required to offer a sacrifice conferring on it the opportunity of drawing near to Hashem who gave it. This is also the reason why the term "soul" is used.  (Commentary of the Ramban, Vayikra 4:2)


That even unintentional sins stain the Divine spark within the human being serves as the basis for one of R. Yosef Soloveitchik's (commonly known as "the Rav") well-known distinction between the dual themes of kappara (atonement) and tahara (purification) on Yom Kippur.  To preface the Rav's words, we note that while the Hebrew word chet is usually translated into English as "sin," the Hebrew means to "miss the mark" (see Shoftim 20:16).  The term teshuva, repentance, comes from the verb shuv – to return.  In English, the word penitence has a common etymology with the word "penalty."  However, in Hebrew, if one "misses the mark," he does not "pay a penalty," but rather tries again.  In his address Acquittal and Purification, the Rav combines the Ramban's understanding with that of Rabbis Hirsch and Hoffmann:


However, sin also has a polluting quality… the entire Bible abounds in references to this idea of self-pollution, contamination, rolling about in the mire of sin.  This impurity makes its mark on the sinner's personality.  Sin, as it were, removes the divine halo from man's head; impairing his spiritual integrity … The communists speak of the commission of "error" and of "deviation," but have no concept of sin.  Error carries no implication of metaphysical impurity or of psychic pollution.  An "error" is a legal, rational term which must be distinguished from "sin," which harms the inner quality of man and has a deep and far-reaching effect on his being.  Indeed, true teshuva… restores man's spiritual viability and rehabilitates him to his original state. 

Even when we do not actually commit a wrongdoing, we often find ourselves on the "path to sin."  Along the sides of this road, sin is permitted to bud, flower, bear fruit and take root.  Like any other organic creation, sin requires an environment in which it can flourish… In regard to purification, abandoning the sin is only a partial remedy.  One must turn away from any temptation to walk in the "path of sin"… which means man's entire way of thinking, his world concept, the intellectual obscurity and emotional ambivalence which combine to create sin and then cast man within it as though into a dungeon.  (R. Soloveitchik, On Repentance, p. 51-2, 57)

[1] Sefer Ha-Chinukh (often simply "the Chinukh") is a work which systematically discusses the 613 commandments of the Torah. It was published anonymously in 13th Century Spain, though some scholars ascribe the authorship of Sefer Ha-Chinukh to Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona (1235-c. 1290), a Talmudic scholar and halakhist, but others disagree, as the views of the Chinukh contradict opinions held by HaLevi in other works.. The work's enumeration of the mitzvot) is based upon Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot, listing each according to the weekly Parasha.  The book discusses  each of the 613 commandments, both from a legal and a moral perspective. For each, the discussion starts by linking the mitzva to its Biblical source, and then addresses the philosophical underpinnings of the commandment (here, termed the "shoresh," or "root"). Following this, the Chinukh presents a brief overview of the halakha (practical Jewish law) governing its observance - usually based on Maimonides Mishneh Torah - and closes with a summary as to the commandment's applicability.