Vayikra – Apologize

Last week’s portion.  Sorry, I fell a bit behind… March Madness…

Stephen Richer
Leviticus 1:1 — 5:26

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

This week’s Torah Portion teaches us that all actions have consequences, especially sinful actions.  Every time we offend, or break rules, there are subsequent occurrences–the offense can be followed with an apology in which case the harm is mitigated, or, if the apology is foregone, pain and grievance are the results.

Parshas Vayikra focuses on apologies–how to atone for our sins.  The method (animal sacrifice) and primary focus (God) of these apologies are different from today’s apologies, but the need for repentance is firmly established in the portion.

“And he shall lean his hand [forcefully] upon the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted for him to atone for him.” (Leviticus 1:4).

“And it shall be, when someone incurs guilt in any one of these cases, that he shall confess the sin which he had committed.” (Lev. 4:5)

The portion spends only limited time detailing the nature of the offenses, choosing instead to concentrate on the details of atonement.  For example, “And the kohen shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, and place [it] on the horns of the altar [used] for burnt offerings.” (Lev. 4:25)  Previous commentaries offer a number of explanations for this emphasis.

One explanation observes that “to err is to be human.”  Or, more seriously, to sin is to be human.  Most of us, and here I certainly include myself, occasionally sin.  Whether it is yelling at a parent, lying to a friend, or something more serious, sins are an almost inevitable part of life.  This universality is substantiated by the array of potential sinners in the portion.  People sin unintentionally (Lev. 4:1); the entire community can sin (Lev. 4:13); people of the land can sin (Lev. 4:27); and leaders can sin (Lev. 4:22).

Fortunately, given the ubiquitous nature of sin, an individual can still be a mensch even if an occasional sinner.  In summary, sin happens, what is important is the response.  That is why so much emphasis is placed on the apology in the portion.

A second interpretation of why the portion is almost entirely devoted to atonement as opposed to particular offense, is that it demonstrates the relationship of effort between sin and apology.  Sins are quick; they are often the result thoughtlessness, impatience, or lack of discipline.  To fully atone for sins, the opposite characteristics must be exhibited: patience, discipline, and time.  If offense is given; the offender must work doubly or triply hard to atone.

In the final verses, the parsha suggests that these measurements of atonement are relative.  Yes, Kobe Bryant bought his wife a $4 million ring after committing adultery, but such a sum is not necessarily sufficient–according the above discussion of proportionality–nor is it necessary.  “But if he cannot afford a sheep, he shall bring as his guilt offering for that [sin] that he had committed, two turtle doves or two young doves before the Lord.” (Lev. 5:7).  This is a progressive sin tax.  The more you can afford; the more you give.

Sins have consequences–they can either prompt apology or hurt, or a combination of the two.  This portion teaches the importance of the apology.

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