We all know the false apologies that prevail in politics: “If I did something that made you feel uncomfortable, I’m sorry.” Here the person disclaims knowledge of his own guilt and foists the responsibility on the other.
But what if we do sin, and are genuinely unaware of it? What – if anything – do we owe?
“When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments” (Lev. 4:2), a sacrifice is required.
It is not entirely clear why such an offering should be mandated, however. An unintentional sin could be the result of doing something and not realizing that it was a sin. Equally possible is that one knows something is a sin but does not realize one has done it. The first is the familiar – ignorance of the law is no excuse, although there are certainly instances where familiarity is not easily achieved. The second is harder to reconcile – if I didn’t realize I had done something wrong, why must I offer a sacrifice to put it right?
Below we explore four reasons, two medieval and two modern, that will help us understand something deep about the Torah and our tradition.
Sefer Hahinuch (13th-century Spain) explains that actions cannot be expiated by words. Since a deed was done, a deed must undo it. Sacrifice helps correct the imbalance created by sin. “And the Torah has promised that when the sinner has done this great action and fully repented, the sin committed through error will be forgiven.”
To act in correspondence with an earlier action makes sense. Yet this leaves the question of why repentance is due in the first place. There was no intention to sin, and intention matters a great deal in all areas of life. If it is an accident, why a sacrifice?
Ramban, a rough contemporary of the Sefer Hahinuch, proposes a metaphysical answer: “Every sin causes a spiritual blemish in the soul.” For Ramban, the result of your action is not only in the world but inside yourself, even if unintentional. Therefore, you must sacrifice to heal your internal blemish.
As we move into the modern age, psychological factors predominate. Samson R. Hirsch, in the 19th century in Germany, suggests that inattention afflicts the sinner. The one who commits an accidental sin has “fallen out of focus” with God. For Hirsch, while the sin is unintentional, it has an element of volition. Because you were not “present” in your mind, you allowed yourself to wander; you are culpable for being distracted.
Finally we turn to an influential modern student of sacrifices, Jacob Milgrom. Milgrom believes that the hatat, the sin offering, is intended to purge not the offender but the sanctuary itself. The blood from the offering is not placed on the sinner, he points out, but on the sanctuary. He colorfully calls this the “Picture of Dorian Gray” theory, after the novel by Oscar Wilde where the protagonist has a picture that gets older and older while he stays looking young. The sinner is unmarked, says Milgrom, but the sanctuary suffers and must be restored.
If we take these four theories together, what do they teach us? That an inadvertent sin demands action (Sefer Hahinuch), the recognition of its effect on our own souls (Ramban) encourages greater focus in our lives (Hirsch) and affects the community and institutions of Israel (Milgrom).
In stark contrast to the theory of radical individuality, which assumes that what I do is only about me, Judaism posits radical connectedness. No activity is unconnected to others in this world. Even during the pandemic, shut up in our homes and staring at screens, we are placing different kinds of weight on the tendrils of society. By both action and inaction we change the world.
Therefore the sacrifice is brought before ohel moed – the Tent of Meeting. In sin and sacrifice and striving we stand always before the place where the Divine and human meet. ■
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple, Los Angeles, and author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe