I’ve written before about my problems with the ideas underpinning the Jewish sacrificial system. While I accept the idea that human beings can and do make mistakes, you have to wonder a bit about a system that is complex (and perhaps unclear) enough that it simply assumes people will transgress on a regular basis. Yes, I understand the argument that a simpler system gives us less of a goal for which to strive. (It’s sort of like the dilemma we face today in Jewish education, being asked to provide meaningful content in less and less time. So we set our sights a little lower. Problem is, with lowered expectations, you generally get what you expected. If what you;re teaching isn’t challenging to your learners, what’s the point. Without some stretching, there’s really no learning. But I digress.)
Nevertheless, G”d (or those responsible for the creation of the text of the Torah and the laws and rules therein) could have created a system that was far less likely to cause regular transgressions. One place to start might have been starting with some clearer instructions in some areas – laws and rules less open to interpretation (for example, the one about boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.) Seems to me the written Torah could have been written in a fashion to obviate the need for the oral Torah. Yes, that could have been quite a challenge, and created a system even more static than the one we have (which, I must admit, is not truly static, just slow to change.)
It is sort of ironic that I, who so often point to the inconsistencies, problems, idiosyncrasies and challenges of Torah as precisely the things that make Judaism (and the Torah) so great and wonderful, should find himself advocating for a less mysterious text. Then again, if I revel in inconsistency, why not this one?
As I was pondering these things and reading the parasha this week, one thing did jump out at me. The text speaks of the committing of inadvertent or unknowing sins, of which the sinner later becomes aware. Twice, when giving instructions for sacrifices of expiation for inadvertent sins, the text adds the notion that rather than discovering the sin for themselves, the sin is brought to their attention.
This phrase is not used when referring to the sin of a priest, or of the whole community, but only in reference to the sin of a chieftain or individual. I suppose it is assumed that the priest will always knows when he has sinned, though that’s one whopping assumption. It also assumes that the community as a whole will also know when they have sinned. Another whopping assumption.
It may just be a matter of practicality. Who would dare to bring to the attention of a priest a sin they committed and had not acknowledged? And when it is the whole community, who could bring it to their attention? (Actually, there are a number of good answers to that. You see what you can come up with.)
Here’s my problem. In allowing for others to bring someone’s attention to an overlooked sin, we approach a very steep slope. Unscrupulous individuals could take advantage of this. Unscrupulous priests could really take advantage of this. (Hey, I’m hungry. Let’s tell Nachshon over there he committed a sin and didn’t know it, and he’ll have to bring a sacrifice. Let’s try and convince him to make it a meal sacrifice-I just love those griddle cakes he makes.) The system is an opening to a sort of Big Brother nightmare. People just watching each other trying to catch them in a transgression.
Why did the Torah feel it necessary to add the words “o hoda eilav khatato asher khatat” – “or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge?” What is added to the dimension of these laws and commandments with this additional words? Why not assume the better nature of human beings and leave it as the text preceding this says simply “and he realizes his guilt?” Why open this can of worms by introducing the ability of another person bringing the offense to the attention of the sinner?
Yes, Torah teaches us that all Israel are responsible one to the other, and that we are obligated for tokhekha, reproach. Is informing each person of a sin they overlooked of such importance? On a communal level, I suppose, it does matter. There is value in helping members of the community know when they have done wrong so that they may correct themselves the next time. That, for me, has greater value than the requirement for a sacrifice of expiation. On the other hand, putting ourselves in the position of the one who was unaware of sinning in those days, I’m sure it was helpful to them to be able to offer a sacrifice of expiation. Nevertheless, I think we’ve a better system nowadays, the one we often refer to at Yom Kippur, of trying harder to hit the mark when we have missed it.
There are those who would claim that all this sacrificial cult material is irrelevant, so why even bother to discuss it as all. Simply dismiss it. While I certainly reject the idea of animal sacrifices, I am not entirely opposed to some system of enabling people to make expiation for sins that is helpful to them and the community. I do see value in wondering why the Torah suggests that others make people aware of their sins. So I don’t find this material devoid of value in a modern context. As we work our way through Vayikra, I’ll try and keep that in mind, and hope you will, too.
And, as long as where on the subject of informing other people of their mistakes and sins…
Oh, G”d, un, I’d like to bring to your attention….
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayikra 5770 – You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 – Redux 5763 – Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That’s Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 – Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 – Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah…