Moses is called upon to instruct the people of Israel on the bringing of the various sacrifices that will be at the heart of their religious service. Some of the sacrifices are voluntary. That is, if someone is moved to bring a sacrifice, there is a specific method by which to do so.
But there are other types of sacrifice that are obligatory in nature, such as the chatat, or sin, offering. The chatat is to be brought in the case of inadvertent sin. The nature of the sacrifice is different, based on the different stations in life of the sinner. A leader, for instance, has a different sacrifice than an ordinary person. And so begins the torat hakohanim, the Torah of the Priests, describing the rituals and worship that are to be performed in the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the construction of which we have been reading about in the last couple of weeks.
The natural question that one might have is, why do we make a sacrifice in the case of inadvertent sin? And further, why is a leader’s inadvertent sin considered greater than that of the ordinary person?
Several sources on the subject of inadvertent sin cite the words of the famed Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “The sinner who sins through error is one who sins through carelessness. In other words, at the moment of omission, that person did not take full care, with whole heart and soul, that the act be in keeping with Torah and commandments, because the person was not, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘concerned about My word.’”
In the days of the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash, those of us who simply shrugged our shoulders, said, “I made a mistake,” and moved on from there were doing a disservice to ourselves and our souls. By failing to create the sacrificial benchmark, we failed to properly examine the reasons for our error so we would not fail to take care again. Our lack of mindfulness would be more likely repeated and perhaps even become a habit. The lack of a recognition of the need for mindfulness multiplies the possibilities of repetition of inadvertent sin.
How much more important is it, then, for a leader to acknowledge even an inadvertent error. The number of people potentially affected by that error are greater than that of the ordinary individual. Further, the temptation to cut corners to gain the approval of the people and maintain one’s leadership position makes a leader especially vulnerable to inadvertent sin. Not only that, but a leader has the ability to lead others into inadvertent error.
One of the categories of inadvertent sin includes a communal sin. A community that inadvertently followed the ruling of a mistaken leader would be required to make a sacrifice as well. And if it can be said that a community can sin inadvertently, then clearly a community can sin intentionally. In other words, whether the acts are inadvertent or intentional, it is never a defense to say that this is what everyone else is doing.
This section of the Torah was traditionally the section with which Torah study began. These were often the first chapters taught to young people even though they describe practices in which we have not been engaged in almost 2,000 years. But they do teach very important lessons. It is not enough to say, “I made a mistake,” and keep walking. One cannot shrug off responsibility simply with the recitation of those words. Our performance of deeds, even with the best of intentions, must always be mindful of the effect they have on our souls. One must maintain spiritual integrity even as part of a group, and even in the case of peer pressure or a mob mentality.
Judaism teaches us from the beginning of our education the importance of being mindful of our actions, individually and as part of a community. Through the recitation of even the simplest of blessings like the motzi, the blessing over bread, we are constantly guided to be mindful of what we do and when to do it. The blessing is just as important at a Shabbat table as it is when we sit to eat a sandwich at work or even at a restaurant. Each of our blessings reminds us of an ongoing relationship with God.
Thus, the food we eat, how and whether we observe our Shabbat and holidays, the acts of righteousness that we do, are all to be done with a consciousness of the importance of those actions and how they connect us to our Creator and to the others in our lives. PJC
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer is rabbi of Adat Shalom Congregation.