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This week we start reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. Most of the book discusses the various sacrifices offered on the alter. One of them is the korban chatas, the sin offering, brought for transgressing most types of sins by accident. The fourth perek of Vayikra begins: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a soul sins unintentionally [by committing one] of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, and he commits one of them” (Vayikra 4:1, 2).
The Medrish Tanchuma wonders why the Torah uses the word “a soul” and not “a person” who sins unintentionally. It writes: “Therefore Hashem says to Moshe, ‘speak to the Children of Israel saying, if a soul unintentionally sins,’ the soul is the sinner. The pasuk says, ‘The place of judgement, there is the wickedness, and the place of righteousness, there is the wicked’ (Koheles 3:16). The soul which was given from righteousness in a place where there is no sin or transgression, and she sins against Hashem? The pasuk is in wonder, ‘if a soul sins unintentionally’?! ‘And the place of righteousness, there is the wicked,’ what is this analogous to? To two people, one is a city dweller and one is a minister of the king, both of them do something illegal against the king. They are taken to court and both were found to be doing same illegal act. What does the king do? He pardons the city dweller and sentences the minister. The other ministers of the king ask him, ‘If they both broke the same law why was the city dweller pardoned and the minister sentenced?’ The King responded, ‘I pardoned the city dweller because he doesn’t know the ways of the monarchy. But the minister is with me every day and knows exactly how I run the monarchy so the one who directly goes against me personally deserves to be punished.’ So to, the body is like the city dweller, ‘And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground’ (Breishis 4:7), and the soul is the minister of The King from on high, ‘and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life’ (Breishis 4:7), and both sinned. Why? Because it is impossible for the body to be without a soul. If there is no soul there is no body and if there is no body the soul does not sin. This is why He pardoned the body and sentenced the soul, as it says, ‘The soul that sins, it shall die’ (Yechezkel 18:20). Therefore the pasuk is surprised, if a soul sins unintentionally [by committing one] of all the commandments of the Lord?!” (Medrish Tanchuma, parshas Vayikra paragraph 6.)
The Etz Yosef, referring to the comparison of the soul to a minister of the king, adds that a soul comes from the sanctuary of the King On High and knows the laws of His kingdom which is the Torah that was taught to him or her before him or her came to this world That what the medrish says in the parable that “every day he is with me;” it means that the soul goes up to heaven every night and reports on what the person did that day, and according to the soul’s merits it gets to see what is in heaven and Hashem teaches the soul. Therefore, even if he sins by accident, he is punished as if it was done on purpose, since the accident of a learned man is considered on purpose as the medrish says later on. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Etz Yosef says over there that a learned sage who transgresses a sin by accident is punished as if he did it on purpose, because he should have been more careful. That is why the pasuk asks in wonderment: ‘if a soul sins unintentionally;’ how could it be, since it comes from on high and knows all the rules of the Torah, and still it sins?!
The Medrish is saying that the soul is held responsible for sinning and, at least initially (as seen later in the medrish), the body is exonerated because the soul is fully aware of the laws of the King and the severity of consequence if it breaks the law. The Daas Zekeinim has a mirror-image commentary to the Medrish on the above pasuk, but with a different message: that the soul knows how much good Hashem does because he was up there with Him. Either way, the soul is held more responsible for sinning, either because of a greater love for Hashem or out of fear of Hashem and His Torah.
However, in practicality, why should this make sense? The reality is that the body, with all its physical desires and magnetic attachment to this world, is really the force which caused the sin, as alluded to by the medrish itself. The soul is thrown into the body by Hashem against its will and is expected to take control of the body as he or she grows up; why should the soul initially take full responsibility? Not only that, but it seems trapped in this body, not wanting to be a part of this lowly physical world. If the body wouldn’t be there, the soul would not have sinned since it is so pure, a tzelem Elokim [created in the image of G-D]! Why is it the soul’s fault?! Essentially the soul is at the whim of the body, so just as the body is innocent, why not pardon the soul? Furthermore, even if you say like the Etz Yosef that the soul goes up to heaven and has a chance to review with Hashem the Torah each day after he or she already learned it from an angel in its mother’s womb, the reality is that upon awakening on this earth, we are no longer attuned to that; so why be held accountable?
The answer is that we have the ability to be attuned to our soul. By delving into the depths and breadth of Torah and mussar (specifically mussar bihispa’alus, emotionalizing what we intellectually know by bridging the gap between our mind and heart.) we can be attuned to our soul and be careful not to sin. A righteous sage does just that, which is why the medrish says he is culpable for accidents as if they are done on purpose, because he should have been more careful. This also could be why a tinok shenishba, one who is totally ignorant of Torah, is exempt from heavenly punishment for his misdeeds in this world, since he was not in tune with his soul, and wasn’t even given a chance to be in tune with his soul to begin with.
Since the Torah is the guidebook for mankind it is obvious that it is more beneficial to be attuned with our soul as much as possible instead of being ignorant we just have to constantly be sure we are actively trying to strive to take the proper steps and care to avoid making mistakes.
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder