Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Vayikrah

By Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

When I studied the first Torah portion in Leviticus, Vayikrah, for my bar mitzvah long ago, it seemed void of contemporary meaning. How wrong I was!

The portion contains two gems I hold dear. The first is familiar to us: “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” If a person commits a sin, however unwittingly, he/she is guilty and must take responsibility for his/her wrongdoing (Leviticus 5:17).

The second, by contrast, promotes a 3,000-year-old concept of justice that modern society is just beginning to employ. The common term for it is retributive justice, but I prefer to call it victim compensation.

If a person steals or gains something through oppression or extortion and then wishes to make up for it, he shall pay his fine, of course, but also: “He shall repay (to the victim) the principal and add a fifth part to it” (Leviticus 5:24), as compensation for the loss. How much better it is if people who commit economic crimes would make restitution and then some to their victims rather than simply go to prison and be a further economic burden to society.

Indeed, the tradition was so enamored of the idea of victim compensation that it interprets the text to give the victim an even greater payout than the Torah seems to mandate. The Torah says, “v’hamishitav yosef lo” – “He shall add a fifth part to it” (Leviticus 5:24). So, if I steal $100, the Torah says that I should pay an additional fifth, which would seem to mean $20 extra, to my victim. Makes sense, but no: Our Sages mandated that the total payout should be $125. Why? The fifth part added is not a fifth of the principal but a fifth part of the total sum paid by the offender (B. Baba Metzia 54A).

The point is not the extra five bucks. The point is that the shapers of Jewish ethics wanted to reinforce just how important victim compensation is to a system in which God has called on us – beginning with Abraham – to do what is “just and right” (Genesis 18:19).

In interpersonal relationships, these two lessons can have great meaning. Should we feel obligated to adhere only to the letter of the law or should we make diligent effort to gain prior awareness of and then to avoid actions that cause another pain? Especially with those we claim to love, we should be sensitive to things that will cause hurt.

Later in Leviticus we read, “You shall not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). This instruction goes beyond the literal. I have never seen a person shout curses at a deaf person or trip one who is blind. But oh, how often are we guilty of exploiting other’s areas of vulnerability? We should not excuse ourselves by saying, “I didn’t know.” It is our job to know.

When we do – as all of us have done – cause hurt, the portion teaches we have an obligation to set those things right. Both the Torah and the Sages clearly emphasized how important it is to try to compensate the one who suffers.

The “meaningless“ verses I read from Leviticus at age 13 now speak to my very soul. By taking these ancient teachings to heart we can be better people and build a more just, caring and compassionate world than the one in which we now live.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, and former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

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