Vayikra – Clearer Past, Blurry Today

We are living in different times than those that once were. The fine line between good and bad, sin and a good deed, are no longer as clear. Biblical punishment was clear; in the times of the Beis HaMikdash if someone spoke loshon hara [slander] he was struck with spiritual leprosy, starting on his house, then his clothes, and finally his own body, if he continued to sin. He was ostracized from society for a period of time until he repented and went through a process to spiritually cleanse himself. One can imagine that this must have been a major deterrent to motivate people not to slander one another. The Rabbis teach us that in the days of King Chizkiyahu, even the children were experts in the laws of tum’ah and tahara (spiritual impurity and purity). People were more cautious about transgressing certain sins because they did not want to receive lashes (the punishment if they sinned on purpose in front of two witnesses and were warned not to do so). Even more so, they were certainly careful not to flagrantly transgress capital crimes.
Just to paint a bit more of a picture of how much the Jewish People formerly appreciated the severity of sin, the Torah in this week’s portion of Vayikra exclaim: “And if a soul sins and does one of the things that Hashem tells him not to do, and he did not know [he did it] and he is guilty and carries his sin. And he shall bring a pure ram from the flock with your value as guilt to the Kohen and the Kohen will atone for him for his accident, for he did an accident and he did not know and we will forgive him. It is a guilt offering, he is certainly guilty to Hashem” (Vayikra 5:17-19).

The Sforno elaborates on these pesukim and explains that “Our Sages know from tradition that this pasuk speaks of a guilt offering for a doubtful transgression (אשם תלוי). He is not certain if he sinned or not, and regarding this it says, ‘And he shall bear his iniquity, i.e. in accordance with what is befitting for him, whether he sinned inadvertently or perhaps did not sin at all. But his transgression was that he was not careful and slipped into doubt, according to his iniquity he shall bear the punishment. Although at times this offering may be brought even though he never transgressed a sin, let him not think that he is bringing a mundane animal into the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash for indeed it is nonetheless a guilt offering, even though he did not actually transgress the sin in which he is in doubt, because ‘he is certainly guilty to Hashem’ for not being more careful and putting himself into this position.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz summarizes the Sforno quite well: “One can be guilty of actually violating a precept of the Torah or one can be guilty of conducting himself in such a careless manner that he is unaware of his actions and cannot determine whether or not he transgressed. The latter heedless action requires atonement no less than the former overt act of transgression.”

To bring a sacrifice in the Beis HaMikdash was a very serious matter, and to bring one for no reason was a severe transgression. Therefore the Sforno was bothered by how the Torah can obligate one to sacrifice an offering in the Beis HaMikdash if it is possible there was no wrongdoing. He answers that it must be there is an inherent flaw in a person who puts himself in the position where he might have sinned, which in and of itself requires atonement.

But what did he do wrong? It was obviously a mistake; he initially didn’t even realize he might have done anything wrong. Why is it fair to fault someone who wasn’t even conscious of his wrongdoing when he did it?

We therefore see from here how responsive and sensitive a person must be for even putting himself into a position of possibly breaking Hashem’s Holy Torah. One is disturbing the purity of the world he was placed in and putting it on very shaky grounds. For that, even if in reality he did nothing wrong, he is still held accountable, for having potentially compromised the sanctity of the world.
Today we live in a world where there is no universal moral compass, and there is certainly very little sensitivity towards sin. Indeed, there are certainly no feelings of consequence for putting oneself in a position of possibly sinning. One of the tragedies of exile is that we lost and don’t deserve this security system of divine safeguard from disobedience.

Hope for a better future is not lost, however. Hashem endowed us with an intrinsic intellect and imagination. He gave us the ability to toil and to delve into the profundity of his Holy Torah, the instruction book for life.

We will be reading in the Haggada soon, at the seder on Pesach night, that “in every generation man has an obligation to look at himself as if he personally left Egypt.” HaRav Reuvain Trop zt”l explains that every person is obligated to feel that Hashem made wonders and miracles for him and took him out of bondage to freedom. Certainly if one truly feels this he would speak more and more about the story, over and over again, for one enjoys telling stories of what has personally happened to him. This is what the Haggada means when it says: “the more one speaks about the redemption from Egypt the more praiseworthy it is.” It is therefore a mitzvah to elaborate the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, since by doing so a person is showing that he feels as if he actually left Egypt. (See the end of Chiddushei HaLev on Sefer Shemos).

We see from here that it is within our ability to imagine and make real the past, but only through learning about it and knowing what it was. Only then can we internalize it and live by it. By using our intellect and imagination we have the ability to become more attuned to right and wrong and to act accordingly, in order to make our world a better place for everyone and everything.