Parashat Vayikra: To err is human

The Hebrew word "het," usually translated as sin, really means to "miss the mark."

“When a person shall sin unintentionally …” (Leviticus 4:2)
Leviticus begins with the laws of sacrifices in the Sanctuary, the most well-known being the sin offering: “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel: when a person [literally a soul, nefesh] shall sin unintentionally from among all the commandments of the Lord which should not have been done, and commits one of them….’”
The Torah then makes it clear that the term “sinners” can include anyone from the anointed High Priest, the elders of the Sanhedrin representing the entire nation, the King (or Prime Minister) of Israel, or any individual (nefesh) from among the people of the Land – “he shall slaughter the sin offering at the place of the whole burnt offering…” (Lev. 4:1-35).
There are two fascinating aspects involved in such sin offerings: The transgression must have been committed unintentionally in order for the sacrifice to bring forgiveness (kappara), and the transgressor must repent with a confession (“A man or woman who commits any of man’s sins….  he/she shall confess the sin that he/she committed” (Numbers 5:6)
To a certain extent, every sin is unintentional, though technically, shogeg (unintentional crime) is used when the perpetrator was unaware of his crime, either because he was ignorant of the law or unmindful of what he was doing. In both instances, lack of awareness reflects a carelessness which is simply not acceptable in a mature human being. Moreover, the transgressor is rarely aware of the full ramifications of his act when he perpetrates it; were he aware, he probably would not have committed the crime.
This seems to be the attitude of the Yom Kippur prayer book, which opens our request for forgiveness immediately following the Kol Nidre prayer with a general statement: “And it shall be forgiven to the entire assembly of Israel and to the proselyte who sojourns among them, for the entire nation acted unintentionally” (Numbers 15:26). Nevertheless, every individual spends the next 25 hours fasting, confessing, repenting and seeking forgiveness from God! After all, unintentional sin is still sin.
And the truth is that the Hebrew word het, usually translated as sin, really means to “miss the mark” (Judges 20:16), which no one does on purpose. Moreover, repentance, or a returning, probably means a return to one’s truest essence (teshuva), while it also shares an etymology with “penalty” or “punishment.”
How can we see repentance as a penalty?
Maimonides defines the commandment to repent to mean to confess: “When one does teshuva [repentance… after committing a transgression], he is obligated to confess before the Almighty blessed be He… this confession is the positive commandment [repent].” (Laws of Repentance 1:1)
This confession which Maimonides defines as the essence of repentance must be quite difficult to utter. We have seen over the past few years how many leading personalities in Israeli religious and political life have been found guilty, and yet how very few – if any – have publicly confessed. Let me try to explain why.
According to Nahmanides, the human is a composite creature, created from the earth like a beast but elevated by the spirit of God which is breathed into him. The daily prayer book teaches us that the essential human being has His divine essence (“My God, the soul which You gave me is pure; You created it… and inspirited it within me”). Our bestial skin and instinctual drives are merely an outer shell, masking our truest selves – sometimes even from ourselves.
And humans often wear masks, pretending to be who we are not. Jacob put on an Esau mask to deceive his father Isaac – and almost turned into the aggressive charlatan Esau until he exorcised him during a nocturnal wrestling match within his own psyche.
David, sweet psalm-singer of Israel, who refused to harm Saul evenafter the mad king tried to take his life, David the great unifier ofIsrael, suddenly committed adultery and then sent the cuckolded husbandto certain death. Only when the prophet Nathan told him the allegory ofthe poor man’s single lamb, and thus demonstrated to David what he hadbecome, did the king step down from his throne and willingly showhimself to be naked and ashamed as he wept before the prophet. And onlyafter that could David recapture his divine essence.
The most difficult thing – especially for an individual or group whichhas achieved an exalted position, is to confess that he has beenpretending to be what he really was not. He must show that the emperoris without clothes, he must discard the mask covering his bestialnature and – in Temple times – give it as a sacrificial offering,destroying the animal within him which had overtaken the Godly.
Paradoxically, only after the profound penalty of such a confession will he be able to return to his true essence.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.