Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha


March 12, 2011/6 Adar II 5771
Modern Author: Bernard Malamud, “The Prison”
Leviticus 5:1-7

KOSHI: When a witness to wrongdoing withholds information, WHO bears the guilt? How?

V.1      If a person incurs guilt: hearing the voice of an oath to which he was witness, because he saw or knew, if he does not come forth with information, he shall be subject to punishment.

HERTZ“kol alah”—the voice of adjuration.  This is “alah” literally, a curse, probably because it was accompanied by the pronouncement of a curse upon the person should he maintain his silence.  Having interfered with the execution of justice, he required expiation through a sin-offering.

R’ Baruch LEVINE“nasa avono”—That is, he shall bear the punishment for his sin.  This reflects the semantic process by which the same word can designate the act and its effect, the crime and its punishment.

TALMUD…If there is a monetary dispute…and witnesses are requested by either party to come forward, there is a responsibility to do so.  If a person denies he has knowledge of the case, the litigant can ask the witness to swear on oath.  If the witness does so, and subsequently admits to withholding information, he is subject to the asham.      [Shavu’ot, 31b]

ETZ HAYIM…We are held responsible not only for the wrong things we do but for the things we should do but do not.  Bystanders who do not act to oppose evil cause enormous, irreparable harm…In Jewish Law, one who has knowledge about a crime and does not come forward to divulge it is “innocent before a human court but guilty in the sight of God.”                      [TALMUD, Bava Kamma, 56a]

TORAH—A WOMEN’s COMMENTARY …This is the first specific transgression that the Book of Leviticus mentions.  It refers to a person who has refused to disclose information that is needed to establish a legal case.  Such an offense might seem minor, but in fact it compromises a person’s integrity and undermines the legal system.  An after-the-fact ritual cannot change the external circumstances of the case, but it provides the transgressor with the means to amend symbolically a wrongdoing that has damaged the fabric of society and self.

V.3             Or if a person touches human impurity…and though he knew it,  it escaped him, but after, he realizes his guilt.

RASHI … After having sinned in his state of forgetfulness, he later realized what had happened.

TALMUD … Whence is it derived that he is not liable unless there is awareness at the beginning, awareness in the end, but unawareness in between?…“v’ne’elam mi-menu—and it was hidden from him.” [Shevu’ot, 19b]             

 V.4            Or if a person utters an oath, for bad or good purpose…and though he knew it,  it escaped him…

TALMUD … Shmu’el taught: One who resolved something in his heart must utter it “biS’fatayim—with his lips,” to be liable for the asham.  [Shavu’ot, 20a] 

SIFRA“for bad or good…” The asham offering applies even if it involves a question of whether or not an event took place, or an innocuous act itself neither bad or good, as it says, “kol asher yivateh”

R’ Baruch LEVINE … According to MISHNA Shevu’ot 1:2, the sacrifices referred to in 5:1-13 apply only when there exists “initial knowledge—ultimate knowledge—[and] lack of acknowledgement in the interim.” In other words, something originally known was forgotten or ignored…If the offense had been intentional, the contamination of the Sanctuary would subject the offender to the more severe penalty of  karet, being “cut off” from the community.

R’ Elie MUNK…These cases lie at the borderline between conscious and unconscious, between innocence and guilt. Through them Torah wants to make us aware of the great responsibility of being human, not only for the acts of omission neglected in good faith, but for those that people would generally regard as minor, or even harmless. The hypothesis quoted by some rabbinic teachers in the name of FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, that the Chatat is reserved for unintentional sins while the Asham is reserved for  sins committed totally unconsciously, or without being able to attest to the act, does not always follow…The important fact is that the Asham is meant for both deliberate and unintentional sins, indicating that very often in our human experience, the boundaries between them become blurred….The Asham offering expresses this truth, playing on the recognition of guilt, combining the deliberate and the inadvertent sinner in a single act of atonement.




4 responses to “Vayikra

  1. Jack Blumenfrucht March 13, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    This week’s Parshat Vayikra is another amazing lesson in community living the Torah teaches us.

    The sages understood from the get go that non-criminal individual acts of misconduct needed to be addressed and resolved expeditiously in order to eliminate any possible toxic consequences these acts might have on the individual and consequently on the community.

    The individual is given here the opportunity to unload his or her guilt onto the community which, by taking possession of it, acknowledges the misconduct, learns from it and, foremost, absolves the individual. This is a win-win approach as everybody benefits here:
    hear-say, bigotry and acts of retaliation are reduced to a minimum; the individual can move on with his/her life; the people participate in community healing making the community stronger and finally, the supervising priests get to eat the offering. This burden/guilt unloading and sharing process serves not only as the one-stop community purification “station” but and foremost, helps raise the community’s awareness, consciousness and responsibility. This in turn, allowed the community to reach the level of maturity needed to deal with an abstract and demanding God and accept the covenants. Absolutely brilliant!

    • VFineberg March 17, 2011 at 8:08 pm

      I cannot help looking at this from a historical viewpoint.

      What I find fascinating, in this whole process, is the slow, gradual construction of a community. This seems to me to be the first historical example of a “polis”, i.e. a state or society especially when characterized by a sense of community.

      So from that perspective, guilt is a way of repressing feelings that, if unleashed, would go against the very idea of building a community. In a way, guilt is the first expression of internalized law, where each member of the group has to “kill” part if his or her instincts so that the group can prevail. A group that is more than the sum of its members.

      So are human beings creators of that order, or is that order dictated by a force that needs humans to express its will?

  2. Pingback: Leviticus 5:1-7, March 12 Chevra « Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

  3. Pingback: Leviticus 5:1-7, March 11 Chevra « Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

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