Efrat, Israel – “When a person shall sin unintentionally …” (Leviticus 4:2)
The book of Leviticus begins with the laws of sacrifices in the Sanctuary, the most well-known being the sin offering: “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel: when a person sins unintentionally breaking any of the commandments of the Lord which should not have been done.’”
The Torah then makes it clear that the term “sinners” can include anyone from the High Priest and the elders of the Sanhedrin representing the entire nation to the King (or Prime Minister) of Israel, or any individual (nefesh) from among the people of the Land – “he shall slaughter the sin offering at the place of the whole burnt offering…” (Lev. 4:1-35).
There are two fascinating aspects involved in such sin offerings: Firstly, the transgression must have been committed unintentionally in order for the sacrifice to bring forgiveness (kappara), and secondly, the transgressor must repent with a confession (“A man or woman who commits any of man’s sins…. he/she shall confess the sin that he/she committed” (Numbers 5:6)
To a certain extent, every sin is unintentional, the transgressor is rarely aware of the full ramifications of his act when he perpetrates it; were he aware, he probably would not have committed the crime. Technically, however, shogeg (the term for an unintentional crime) is only used when the perpetrator was unaware of his crime, either because he was ignorant of the law or unmindful of what he was doing. Either way, such a lack of awareness reflects a carelessness which is not acceptable in a mature human being.
This seems to be the attitude of the Yom Kippur prayer book, which opens our requests for forgiveness with a general statement: “And it shall be forgiven to the entire assembly of Israel and to the proselyte who sojourns among them, for the entire nation acted unintentionally” (Numbers 15:26). Nevertheless, we all spend the next 25 hours fasting, confessing, repenting and seeking forgiveness from God! After all, unintentional sin is still sin.
The Hebrew word “het”, usually translated as sin, really means to “miss the mark” (Judges 20:16), which no one does on purpose. Moreover, repentance, or a returning, probably means a return to one’s truest essence (teshuva), while it also shares an etymology with the word for “penalty” or “punishment.” How can we see repentance as a penalty?
Maimonides defines the commandment to repent as meaning to confess: “When one does teshuva [repentance… after committing a transgression], he is obligated to confess before the Almighty blessed be He… this confession is the positive commandment [repent].” (Laws of Repentance 1:1)
This confession which Maimonides defines as the essence of repentance may be quite difficult to utter. We have seen over the past few years how many leading personalities in Israeli religious and political life have been found guilty of crimes, and yet how very few – if any – have publicly confessed. Let me try to explain why.
According to Nahmanides, human beings are composite creatures, created from the earth like beasts but elevated by the spirit of God which is breathed into us. The daily prayer book teaches us that the essential human being has a divine essence (“My God, the soul which You gave me is pure; You created it… and inspirited it within me”). Our bestial skin and instinctual drives are merely an outer shell, masking our truest selves – sometimes even from ourselves.
And humans often wear masks, pretending to be who we are not. Jacob put on an Esau mask to deceive his father Isaac – and almost turned into the aggressive charlatan Esau until he exorcised him during a nocturnal wrestling match within his own psyche.
David, sweet psalm-singer of Israel, who refused to harm Saul even after the mad king tried to take his life, David the great unifier of Israel, suddenly committed adultery and then sent the cuckolded husband to certain death. Only when the prophet Nathan told him the allegory of the poor man’s single lamb, and thus demonstrated to David what he had become, did the king step down from his throne and willingly show himself to be naked and ashamed as he wept before the prophet. And only after that could David recapture his divine essence.
The most difficult thing – especially for an individual or group which has achieved an exalted position, is to confess that they have been pretending to be what they were not. They must show that the emperor is without clothes; they must discard the mask covering their bestial nature and – in Temple times – give it as a sacrificial offering, destroying the animal within them which had overtaken the Godly.
Paradoxically, only after the profound penalty of such a confession will they be able to return to their true essence.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.