Before I go on to this week’s parasha, I want to make note of the fact that this is the National Day (Shabbat) of Unplugging. I won’t be participating, out of deliberate choice. I wrote about this in February for parashat Yitro in my musing Why I Won’t Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging. Just this week, Rabbi Laura Baum, of OurJewishCommunity.org, the online humanist congregation that does online streaming services,blogged on the same subject, and I’d like to call it to your attention as well. http://www.ourjewishcommunity.org/2012/03/21/national-day-of-meaningful-plugging-rather-than-national-day-of-unplugging/ She suggests, as an alternative, a “National Day of Meaningful Plugging.” While you’re at it, you might want to give their online services a look. I’m not a secular humanist, so their services aren’t my cup of tea, however, I applaud what they’re trying to do and think that anyone seriously interested in the future of Judaism ought to check out their model. Their online service is short, so you can take it in and still get to services elsewhere. Also, to be fair, if Reboot’s Sabbath Manifesto and the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging interests you, here’s the link: http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org/unplug While I no longer endorse the idea, I feel obligated to allow them to make their case to you as I have made mine.
All that being said, I want to turn to our parasha. Yes, here we are in Vayikra/Leviticus. Fun, fun, fun. Not. Yet I have discovered over the years that Vayikra can be mined to reveal some very precious nuggets. It is also a good candidate for close and careful reading in the original Hebrew, which can often cause one to question or challenge the various English translations that abound. Close reading, and especially the ability to read and parse the original Hebrew can reveal all sorts of subtleties, quandaries, and just plain head-scratchers.
Parashat Vayikra is about sacrifices, plain and simple. When and where expiation is needed, and how to make expiation. In reading it yet again this year, I was struck by how it really does seem to set the stage for the rabbinic methodologies. Many of us, myself included, rant and rave about how the rabbis of the Mishna/Genara/Talmud/Midrash seem to revel in beating a subject to death, by exploring every possible “what if” scenario. A good look at Vayikra reveals that this tendency was in place long before the rabbis. Whatever you believe may be the source/origin of the Torah, there’s plenty of evidence here that this source was inclined to try and be as complete, thorough, and inclusive (in a “what if” sense) as possible. Why else would the text be concerned with providing for alternative sacrifices based on socio-economic status? In this and in so many other places, the text attempts to cover all the possibilities. Deliberate sins. Inadvertent sins. Sins you knew about, then forgot, then realized you had committed.
It’s this last scenario that caught my attention. There are a number of times the texts mentions people coming to realize they had sinned – brought to their attention by others or by accusation, or raised by discoveries (thefts, injuries, and the like.) Yet only in one small section does the text discuss self-realization and confession. In chapter 5, verse 5 we read:
וְהָיָ֥ה כִֽי־יֶאְשַׁ֖ם לְאַחַ֣ת מֵאֵ֑לֶּה וְהִ֨תְוַדָּ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר חָטָ֖א עָלֶֽיהָ׃
5. when he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess wherein he has sinned. (JPS)
These are private sins. Sins which may have never been revealed if the person who committed them did not confess them. Yes, v’hit’vadah can be fairly translated as “he shall confess.” The question occurs to me, “confess to whom?” To himself? To G”d? To the priests? To others? I guess the very act of making expiation reveals that he is admitting to a sin.
This verse is debated by scholars. While many accept the translation “he shall confess” other argue that the proper translation is “and he confessed.” It all boils down to the use of the vav prefix. In Hebrew, it can be a simple conjunctive, and. It can also be a “reversing vav” which alters the tense of the verb from perfect to imperfect or vice versa. In the JPS Commentary to Leviticus, Baruch Levine argues that here the vav is simply indicative rather than tense reversing, and therefore not stipulating a requirement. So, oddly enough, in the commentary, the JPS-selected editor is taking exception to the translation of the JPS translation committee!
5. when he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, and has confessed wherein he has sinned… (JPS)
Once again we ask “confessed to whom?” Only this time it makes more of a difference. If the confession is to himself, or to G”d, the matter remains private. If the confession is to another, the committed sin is no longer private. Does it make a difference? I’m not sure. For those who seek to create a system that is clear and unambiguous, it matters. The question is whether the Torah here is requiring the person to confess, or is the confession merely an act after which the Torah is requiring the person to make the appropriate expiation. As to contemporary relevance, one need only think of making expiation in terms other than that of ritual sacrifice. That’s certainly a well-established rabbinic, post-Temple understanding. So understanding this fine point can matter just as much to us today.
The fifth step of twelve-step programs, “admitted to G”d, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” is more likely founded upon the Christian understandings of AA’s progenitor, the Oxford Group. It is clear that this step requires confession to at least one other human being. That still allows the confession to be relatively private, because one need only share it with a sponsor, or perhaps a therapist, or friend, people who are bound, legally, ethically, or morally, to uphold the confidentiality of the confession. How does this fit into Judaism? It is certainly clear that Yom Kippur, indeed the entirety of the Days of Awe contain an element of confession, and, in the Viddui prayer, a rather public, if generic one, at that. So it would seem that the rabbis believed that confession of sins did require the element of being made known to another. The rabbinic vote is in favor of the “he shall confess” translation of v’hit’vadah.
The verb v’hit’vadah appears only twice in our sacred texts. It seems to me this reinforces Levine’s position that confession was not the focus of verse 5. Rather, verse five simply pushes itself and all the verses that preceded it in chapter five to the acts of expiation spelled out in verse 6. Levine’s position is that confession is mentioned in verse five simply because unlike the many other situations described elsewhere in Leviticus, this is a case of a personal desire to be morally and ethically pure, and thus to confess to one’s sins once they had been recognized as such.
This, unfortunately, leads us to another Hebrew oddity of these verses. Chapter 5, verses 2,3 and 4 all contain the words
וְנֶעְלַ֣ם מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְה֥וּא יָדַ֖ע וְאָשֵֽׁם
…and the fact had escaped him, and he (later) realizes his guilt
A more literal translation of ‘v’ne’lam mimenu might be “it was concealed from him.” So what we have here is someone who commits a sin, forgets about it, and then later recalls having committed the sin? Again Levine attempts to explain:
“…guilt is not a function of awareness; it is a function of committing an act or failing to commit one…”
Levine, B. A. (1989). Leviticus. The JPS Torah commentary (27). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
These are not inadvertent sins. The offending party was knowledgeable of their sin, but chose to ignore it at the time and then forgot about it. The desire to be a good human being forces self-realization. It was never a question of whether the offender was perhaps arguing a matter of interpretation. Sin is sin, acknowledged or not.
This seems to me to be a rather common state of affairs for human beings. We regularly and daily commit acts which we know at the time to be sinful. Sometimes we then (conveniently?) forget what we have done. We should be possessed of an inner moral compass that forces us to confront our sins, confess to them, and make appropriate expiation for them. Sadly, that is not all that common a behavior. We just let the sins pile up. True, we have the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur to reflect upon our sins, and to admit them. Is this once-a-year confession enough?
I find chapter 5 teaching me we must not depend on a one-time or annual inventory of our sins. Instead, we must remain constantly aware of our deeds, and recognize our sins of commission and omission. (Twelve-Step groups recognize this and canonize it in the 10th step of continuing to take personal inventory and promptly admitting our wrongs.) Constant self-scrutiny is recommended.
It’s unclear to me if the Torah is assuming that sinners will always eventually come to realize their sin, though it is clear to me that Torah says that guilt is not dependent on self-realization. A sin is a sin is a sin. This is especially important for those of us liberal Jews who make choices. We cannot wantonly disregard commandments. We must have clear and reasoned arguments for choosing or failing to do something that is traditionally understood as required. We must be comfortable with our choice to declare some action or inaction to not be a sin. We cannot play the “v’ne’lam” game, pleading that we didn’t know, that it was concealed from us. Nevertheless, we must not allow ourselves to believe that our Judaism, because it chooses to reinterpret, modify, change, even ignore traditional understandings, is somehow less authentic. However, to make this claim, we must be knowledgeable. We must study and learn, we must argue and reason. We must struggle. And when we do commit a sin, a wrong, we must recognize it, and seek to determine what appropriate expiation might be for it in our modern context.
Reading parashat Vayikra, and all of Leviticus, we must seek to understand how the concepts of sin, expiation, and sacrifice fit into our lives, our world. It is not enough to say, as does one of the four children in the story from the Passover Haggadah, the one we call rashah, what is this to you (us?) It is everything. It is Torah. It is in our heads, mouths, hearts. Do not just idly ignore whole swaths of Torah for convenience. Struggle with them. You’ll find the struggle worthwhile.
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayikra 5771 – I’d Like To Bring To Your Attention…
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…