This week’s Torah portion of Vayikra describes the various voluntary and obligatory sacrifices that G-d commands the Jewish people to bring.
Among them, there’s a very specific type of sacrifice, called asham talui - an “undetermined guilt” offering. As opposed to the other sin and guilt offerings, which are brought when a person's action has transgressed a commandment (even if that was only realized after the fact), the asham talui is brought when it cannot be conclusively determined whether the act was, in fact, a transgression at all.
The great commentator Rashi (France, 1040-1105 C.E.) gives the following example of such a case: [a piece of] prohibited animal fat and [a piece of] permissible animal fat are placed before someone, and, thinking that both were permissible [fats], the person ate one. Then, people told that person, “One of those pieces was prohibited fat!” Now, if the person knew that the piece consumed was the forbidden piece they would bring a regular sin offering. But since it is unknown which piece was eaten, the permitted or the forbidden, the asham talui
offering is proscribed.
But why does one need to bring any offering at all? The 16th century Italian commentator Sforno writes that regardless of which piece of meat was actually consumed, even if it luckily was the right one, this person is still guilty of not paying closer attention to their actions and making sure that their food was kosher before eating.
The asham talui
teaches us that we may not engage in careless or risky behavior. We must take responsibility for questionable actions even in the absence of conclusive proof that we have done something wrong.
The logic of the asham talui
offering is relevant to environmental consciousness. There are many
instances where the negative environmental impact of our actions is not
immediately evident or scientifically verified. Does shutting the water
while I brush my teeth matter? Will carpooling to work really
air quality? These kinds of doubts often prevent well-meaning people
from making changes that could positively affect the environment.
Perhaps the most significant example is humanity's impact on the global
climate. The basic premise of this impact is that modern industrial
society has increased greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, with 85
percent of emissions caused by burning fossil fuels for energy. This
increase is believed to affect the makeup of the earth's atmosphere,
For years, debate raged whether there was any real connection between
human activity, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Today, most
reliable scientific sources agree that the earth is getting warmer, and
human activity contributes to that warming. The uncertainty that
remains generally concerns the degree of impact, and the effectiveness,
of our potential response to drastic change - that is, whether human
adaptation (sea walls and dikes, population transfers from low-lying
regions, hurricane and other disaster response and rebuilding) will be
possible, or whether climate change will threaten the very fabric of
According to a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
(the most authoritative body on climate change science in the world,
comprised of hundreds of scientists from tens of countries), “It is very likely
that hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will
continue to become more frequent.” The US Environmental Protection
Agency states that, by the end of this century, the average surface
temperature of the earth is likely to increase within the range of 2.5
to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This means an increase in warming up to ten
times that recorded in the 20th century, potentially the highest warming
in the last 10,000 years.
If the warming stays in the low end of this range, the consequences may
not be severe. The middle range forecast will likely be quite negative
for humanity. According to the upper range scenario, the consequences
would be dire: warming would melt polar ice caps, causing massive
flooding, wreaking havoc on agriculture, and fueling powerful,
In spite of the wealth of evidence from various US and international
government agencies, skepticism still exists. Some say that it would be
rash to take costly measures to stop the release of greenhouse gases
while there is still scientific uncertainty as to the extent of their
effect. Even if the naysayers are right and global warming is not a
pressing problem, reducing our need for fossil fuels would still result
in positive benefits - air will be cleaner, the chance of oil spills and
other disasters will be reduced, pristine lands will not be threatened
by drilling plans, and energy politics will no longer be at the center
of global affairs.
The very message of the asham talui
offering is that atonement must be sought even in the absence of certainty
Since what is at stake could be the continuation of life as we know it,
our use of fossil fuels has tremendous bearing on how we serve G-d and
act as stewards of Creation. Thus, as Sforno says, we should avoid
behaviors that might bring us into guilt. Burning fossil fuels to
support the global industrial economy has led us into just such a
situation, and will continue to do so if we do not respond accordingly.
The Torah thus underlies a contemporary moral and political guiding
value, the precautionary principle. It implies "...a willingness to take
action in advance of scientific proof [or] evidence of the need for the
proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately
most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and
unfair to future generations."
The Midrash to our verse teaches, “Rabbi Yose the Galilean says:
Scripture punishes someone who did not know [whether he had sinned or
not]; how much more so will Scripture punish someone who does indeed
know!” Thus our tradition emphasizes how a person's sin becomes more
severe as awareness increases. Today, a global consensus of scientists
has become more and more adamant about the urgent need for human action
to curb global climate change. Even if we are not certain of the
long-term impacts of global warming today, we must prepare for the
future, or know that our guilt is before G-d.
Suggested Action Items:
• Consider the frequency of your air travel. Flying contributes even
more to climate change than driving because much more of the carbon
emitted by the plane goes directly to the atmosphere.
• Try carpooling to work or riding public transportation once a week.
Reducing our reliance on the personal automobile for all of our
transportation needs will be important to slowing the rate of global
climate change and will also reduce our reliance on foreign oil.
Rabbi Shlomo Levin joined Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as its Rabbi in September of 2003. Rabbi Yonatan Neril is the founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars (www.jewishecoseminars.com).
This article is adapted from Canfei Nesharim's Eitz Chaim Hee series of
environment-focused commentaries on the weekly Torah portion.