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The Beauty of a Sin Offering | Parshat Vayikra

March 28, 2020

“I apologize if something I said may have offended you.”  Or, “I’m sorry you feel that way about what I did.”  We find all kinds of ways of saying “sorry” without really saying sorry at all.  No one likes to be wrong, and even worse is admitting it, so when we feel that an apology is called for, we’ll try and avoid it at all costs.

Politicians and leaders are experts at this.  And it’s not totally their fault.  Because our society has unrealistic expectations of our leadership, and many view mistakes or apologies as signs of weakness.  So politicians find creative ways to apologize without actually admitting to any culpability, and while often, at the same time, in fact, shifting the blame to others. 

The Torah's perspective on mistakes, admission, and confession, especially within the paradigm of leadership- be it religious or political- could not be more different.  Chapter 4 of Parshat Vayikra focuses exclusively on the sin offering.  It begins with:

וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר דבר אל בני ישראל לאמר נפש כי תחטא בשגגה מכל מצות ה' אשר לא תעשינה ועשה מאחת מהנה.

Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, speak to the children of Israel saying, when a person will sin unintentionally from among all the commandments of Hashem that may not be done, and he commits one of them. (Vayikra 4:1-2)

It seems like Torah is introducing the standard sin offering, brought by any individual who accidentally commits a severe transgression.  And yet, the Torah continues by first delineating the laws of three niche sin offerings, which were far less common, namely the sin offering for a kohen gadol, the sin offering brought on behalf of the entire nation when it would act based on a mistaken ruling from the Great Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme court), and the sin offering for a king.  Only then does the Torah teach the far more common korban, the sin offering of an individual.  Why would the Torah first enumerate these unique offerings, which relate to a tiny segment of the population, rather than begin with the offering that relates to nearly everyone? 

Perhaps the Torah is teaching that our leaders need to be examples and role models for admitting mistakes and saying sorry.  They need to be the ones who stand up, publicly and genuinely, to admit to a mistake, apologize, and work on fixing it.  The hope is that the rest of us can learn from them, and will then bring our own personal sin offerings without shame or hesitation.

In fact, you’ll notice that three out of these four sin offerings are introduced by the word “ואם, And if.”  For it is not guaranteed that any one person will sin and need to bring a korban, but “if” the needed arises, this is how it’s done.  However, when introducing the sin offering of a king, the Torah writes, “אשר נשיא יחטא, When a ruler sins (Vayikra 4:22).”  For a king, a political leader, who bears so much responsibility for his subjects, and who is constantly worried about maintaining support and power, it is almost guaranteed that he will stumble or sin.  Mistakes by our most powerful leaders should not come as a surprise and should not be viewed as a weakness; we should understand that they come with the territory and are basically inevitable.

When Natan the prophet spoke critically of King David regarding his dealings with Uriah and Batsheva, the Navi relates, “ויאמר דוד אל נתן חטאתי לה', And David said to Nathan, I have sinned to G-d (Shmuel II 12:13).”  Succinct and sincere, King David didn’t mince his words.  He understood that he was responsible for his actions, and he knew that as a leader he must model what it means to truly say sorry.  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai taught, “אשרי הדור שנשיא שלו מביא חטאת על שגגתו, Fortunate is the generation whose leader brings a sin offering for his mistakes (Tosefta Bava Kamma 7:2).”  How blessed are the Jewish people to have had leaders like King David, who were righteous, pious, and not afraid to utter the words, “I have sinned!”

The Gemara (Shabbat 88b) relates that when Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the angels objected, claiming that it would be more proper for the Torah to remain with the angels.  Hashem turned to Moshe and asked him to respond.  Moshe said:

The Torah says, ‘I am the Lord your G-d Who brought you out of Egypt (Shemot 20:2).’  Did you descend to Egypt?  Were you enslaved by Pharaoh?... ‘Honor your father and mother (Shemot 20:12).’  Do you have a father and mother?... ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal (Shemot 20:13).’  Is there jealousy among you, or an evil inclination within you, [that would tempt you to do these things]?” 

The angels understood and agreed that the Torah was meant for people.

Everyone makes mistakes and bad decisions on occasion, both towards G-d and to our fellow.  True greatness is not feigning infallibility, but recognizing, and admitting, that we all make mistakes.  Hashem gave us the Torah with the understanding that we are not angels, and that we have temptations and desires.  He knows and expects that we will sometimes falter or sin.  Even though we don’t currently have a Beit Hamikdash, a place to bring our sin offerings, we must follow the lead of King David and not be ashamed, when necessary, to admit to each other and to ourselves, “חטאתי, I have sinned.”  How fortunate we are to have such role models!        

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Fox

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784