Parashat Vayikra
March 20, 2021 | 7 Nisan 5781
Torah: Leviticus 1:1-5:26; Triennial 3:1-4:26
Haftorah: Ezekiel 43:21-44:23
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a Dvar Torah on Parashat Vayikra by Ilana Kurshan called "Just in Case". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "When You Transgress, Mister President…". And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "From Weariness to Rest" in the Haftorah.
Just in Case
Ilana Kurshan

The typology of sacrifices in parshat Vayikra offers a window into the various reasons a person might wish to draw close to God. These sacrifices fall into two main categories: There are voluntary sacrifices offered out of gratitude and thanksgiving; and then there are obligatory sacrifices, most notably the sin offerings to atone for wrongdoing. Somewhere between them is a sacrifice known as the Asham Talui, the conditional guilt offering, which speaks to the complexity of assuming personal responsibility in a world of uncertainty.

The Asham Talui is offered when an individual suspects that she might have committed a grave offense but can’t be sure. If the individual knew with certainty, she would bring a sin offering, which would involve confessing her sin before the priest. In the case of the Asham Talui, however, she cannot confess because she can’t be sure she did anything wrong. Instead, she merely brings the sacrificial animal to the Temple, and the priest makes expiation on her behalf. Like the obligatory sin offering, this sacrifice serves to atone. But like the voluntary offerings, this impetus for this sacrifice comes from within – the individual wishes to clear the record just in case she is at fault.

The Torah does not offer examples of the types of situations that might require an Asham Talui, stating only that it applies “when a person, without knowing it, sins in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done” (5:17). But the Talmud (Kidushin 81b) explains that whenever Rabbi Akiva came to this verse, he would cry, lamenting that if a person is unsure of his sin and still has to bear his iniquity, all the more so must this be true for a person who sinned knowingly. Rabbi Akiva uses the example of an individual who meant to eat permitted fat, but instead may have mistakenly eaten forbidden fat. The person can’t be sure which fat he ate, and so he brings a sacrifice just in case. Rabbi Akiva is distressed by the weight of human responsibility – we are accountable not just for sins we know we committed, but even for those of which we are not fully aware.

But the Talmud tells of another sage who had a very different approach to the Asham Talui. Bava ben Buta, a disciple of Shammai, used to offer an Asham Talui every day out of concern that he might have sinned unawares. The only day of the year he did not bring this sacrifice was on Yom Kippur, because it would be redundant to atone for guilt on the day that all sins are forgiven. The Mishnah (Keritut 6:3) relates that in fact Bava ben Buta was so obsessively preoccupied with his fear of sin that he wished to bring a sacrifice on Yom Kippur as well; the only reason he didn’t was because the other sages forbade him.

For Bava ben Buta, there was a tremendous sense of security in knowing that he could rid himself of potential guilt. And he is not alone. The Talmud recognizes that the Asham Talui played an important psychological role, explaining that it serves “to protect a person from suffering” (Keritut 26b) because “the Torah is concerned for the bodies of Israel” (Keritut 25a). Sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you quite a lot. For individuals like Bava ben Buta, one gets the sense that it would be impossible to keep putting one foot in front of another without a way to atone for all the microscopic critters he was potentially trampling with every step.

We live in a world in which we cannot always know if we are doing the right thing, or if we have done something wrong. While it would probably be crippling to live plagued by doubtful sin like Bava ben Buta, it would be presumptuous and even dangerous to assume that any of us, with our limited perspective, can see the full repercussions of our actions. The wrongs we commit matter even when we are not aware of them, and they require redress. And so we give charity, and we offset our carbon footprint, and we reach out to friends we have not heard from in a while – because who can be certain that everything we own is ours, and that we have not done our share of damage to our planet, and that something we said or did is not the cause of prolonged estrangement. If we each bear responsibility for the sins we may have committed unintentionally—if we each bring our offerings out of doubt—perhaps we will begin to find ourselves, and our world, in a better place.
When You Transgress, Mister President…
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Text: Vayikra 4:22-25

(22)When a Nasi (political leader) transgresses and does one of all the commands of the LORD his God that should not be done, inadvertently, and bears his guilt, (23)or his offense that he committed is made known to him, he shall bring his offering… (25)And the Kohen shall atone for him for his offense and it shall be forgiven him.

  • What does the opening term “when a Nasi transgresses” seem to imply? (Think of what word we could have expected this law to begin with rather than “when”.) Why?
  • Why should a leader have a special type of atonement sacrifice for this purpose?
  • What does the situation in which the leader has to publicly sacrifice for his atonement, with the help of a Kohen, do for the people’s understanding of power and authority?
  • What might be the difficulty with this law?
  • How likely do you think this law was to be practiced? Why?
Commentary: Rashi Vayikra 4:22

When (“Asher”) a Nasi transgresses– The word “Asher” is connected in meaning with “Ashrei” (happy). Happy is the generation whose Nasi takes care to bring an atonement sacrifice even for an inadvertent act of his; how much the more certain is it that he will do penance for his willful sins.

  • The unusual opening word ‘asher’ (‘when’) caused Rashi to bring a midrashic additional reading for the word, reading it as happiness. What should the community be happy about in this unfortunate situation of a transgressing Nasi?
  • Rashi implies that this might not have been practiced in every generation. What would it say about a generation whose leader follows this Mitzvah?

Commentary: Sforno Vayikra 4:22

About the sin of the king it says: When the Nasi (political head) transgresses; (there is no conditional word “if,”) for it is a common thing that he will become guilty of at least an inadvertent sin; as Moshe said in Deuteronomy 32,15 “when Yeshurun waxed fat it kicked”. (A good life causes people to ‘kick’.) And he bears his guilt - he realized himself that he had sinned; it did not have to be brought to his attention by others. Or his offense that he committed is made known to him - by others.

  • How does Sforno explain the lack of a conditional statement at the beginning of this law?
  • What is the political climate in the state if others can inform the king that he has transgressed?
From Weariness to Rest
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

We know what it is to be weary. We have lived a year in which each day bled into the next and the things that one gave us solace became mortally dangerous. We know what it is for routines to be dissolved and life to descend into chaos. And we are ready for Isaiah’s words of comfort, we are ready for a return to an old-new way of life.

Our haftarah ends with the words we long to hear: “Sing out, oh heavens, for God has made, shout out, oh depths of the earth, break forth, oh mountains, singing, oh forest, and every tree in it. For God has redeemed Jacob and is glorified in Israel.” We are more than ready to sing, to break forth from our confinements and find glory in our communities. And as we get our vaccines, as Passover approaches with the spring, “the blossoms appear in the land, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land,” as we read in Song of Songs 2:12.

How are we to transition from weariness to song? How are we to shed the past year’s sense of loss and embrace freedom once again? Our Torah portion and haftarah portion are rather clear on the process. Transitioning from slavery to freedom, from exile to homeland, or from lockdown to life requires us to create an ordered existence by coming back to the creator of order himself, God.

The haftarah portion starts with talk of weariness - we are weary of God and God’s demands, while God is made weary by our guilt. Weariness or tiredness is a particular concept in the Tanakh. Weariness is a lack of rest, a lack of comfort. The second line of our haftarah reads, “And you did not invoke me, oh Jacob, for you have wearied of me, oh Israel.” Our weariness has brought us to inaction. We have wearied of God and we have not called God. We have not brought God sacrifices. God points out that the substance of the sacrifices was not a burden, it ought not to have made us weary. And in fact, it did not. We did not even offer the sacrifices. Our inaction made us all the more weary.

How are we to find rest then? We must not mistake our lethargy for rest. Weariness comes from chaos, comes from a loss of sense of responsibility and ability to act. Rest comes from creation. Rest is the reward of a job well done. Rest is the activity of Shabbat, the seventh day made separate from the rest of the week by our choice to desist from regular activity. Rest is the resumption of order. As order resumes and we throw ourselves back into it, soon enough we will find ourselves able to join in song, celebrating ourselves, not for the work of our hands, but for the lives we can lead.
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