The major theme presented in Sefer Vayikra is the institution of Korbanot, generally translated as sacrifices. The Ramban, in his introduction to the Sefer expands the theme, noting that the true essence of VaYikra is the laws governing the Mikdash and those who serve in it, i.e., Kohanim and Leveim. By its very nature, the specific laws are therefore heavily weighted toward the Korbanot and issues that are logical extensions of these offerings. Within the larger context of all of Chamisha Chumshei Torah, the Ramban sees this Sefer as the natural continuation of the ideas of Galut and Geula, which were the themes of Breishit and Shemot. Breishit, which described the beginnings of Am Yisrael and ends with the physical descent into Mitzrayim and the spiritual descent into Galut, is followed by Sefer Shemot, which chronicles both the physical salvation of Yetziat Mitzrayim, and equally important, the spiritual Geula achieved through receiving the Torah and building the Mishkan. The role of the Mishkan, and later the Beit HaMikdash, is to ensure that God’s presence is always within the Jewish People. According to the Ramban, it is this spiritual Geula, which parallels the physical redemption, which caps Sefer Shemot. It is only natural, therefore, that the third Sefer of Chumash will be dedicated to the laws of preserving the Mishkan, so that the presence of God is not driven away from the people.
When we think about Korbanot, we often associate them with the concept of forgiveness or redemption. (Please note: It is not my intention to discuss here the reasons for the institution of Karbanot. For a basic overview you might want to study the first chapters of Nechama Leibowitch’s Studies on Sefer VaYikra. While I don’t own the English edition, I assume that it parallels the Hebrew version, where the first two chapters are dedicated to this theme.) The first Korban that comes to mind is very often the Korban Chatat, commonly translated as the sin offering. Our understanding of the Avoda of Yom Kippur strengthens this association of Korban with forgiveness, where the concept of forgiveness and atonement is supreme. The concept, however, is not limited to the Korban Chatat. The very first Korban that the Torah describes is the Korban Olah, the burnt offering. The passuk tells us (1:4) that one who brings an Olah must lay his hands on the animal’s head (in fact he must press down with all his might) ” and it will be accepted in order to atone for him” (v’nirtze lo l’chaper alav). Rashi on the passuk wonders, which sins are being atoned for? Quoting the midrash, he rejects the possibility that the reference is to sins which were performed intentionally, as they can only be atoned through the punishment proscribed for them. The reference, concludes the midrash, is to positive mitzvot which were not properly performed. Neither Rashi nor the midrash consider the possibility that the reference might be to sins committed unintentionally, as the Korban Chatat atones for these.
The Ramban, however, asks the question on Rashi that many of you are probably asking. We know that the Korban Chatat only atones for sins committed unintentionally (shogeg) which carry the penalty of “karet”, that the transgressor is cut off from the rest of the Jewish People, when committed intentionally (mayzid). If so, what prevents Rashi from explaining that the Olah atones for other sins committed b’shogeg? The Ramban suggests the following possible explanation. Since the Torah does not suggest a punishment/atonement for sins committed b’shogeg other than those carrying the punishment of karet, we can understand from this that when these sins are committed unintentionally there is no sanction, and no need for atonement. Nowhere in the Torah, on the other hand, is a sanction described for failure to fulfill a positive mitzva. Hence, the Olah serves this purpose. (You might want to see the Ramban inside for other suggestions he makes).
The Achronim are quick to point out that we can not take the Ramban literally, as that would suggest that there is absolutely no need for atonement on the vast majority of sins, a truly radical proposition. Instead, they suggest that atonement for other negative mitzvot is accomplished simply through the Teshuva process. (See footnote #43 in the Chumash Torat Chaim). While the Ramban’s explanation makes clear that there is a definite aspect of atonement to the Olah, it begs a different question. Why is atonement through a sacrifice limited to sins that carry the punishment of karet and no others? And on a more basic level, what does a korban add to the atonement process that simple teshuva does not?
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests that it is the gravity of an act that carries the penalty of karet which create the obligation of bringing a korban in order to atone for having transgressed one of these sins. This can be understood in one of two ways. On one level, says Rav Hirsch, it reflects the reality that no individual is immune from sin. Therefore, the requirement to bring the korban is limited to a relatively small number of sins. On another level, the sins that carry the punishment of karet are all somehow related to our status as Jews. Hence, transgression logically carries the punishment of karet, being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. Given the severity of our actions, even when done accidentally, we are required to do more to atone for such a sin than a different, less “in your face” type of sin might demand.
This analysis leads us to a final question. How does the act of bringing the Korban Chatat create the necessary environment for atonement for such a critical sin?
In explaining the central role that the Mishkan (and later the Mikdash) plays in Jewish spiritual life, the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzva 95) places great emphasis on the educational value of a physical act, as opposed to a verbal one. In our context, the Chinuch sees the fact that when a person faces the sight of an animal on the altar, he realizes that his actions have brought him to the level of an animal and that a life of physicality alone leads to destruction. The act of bringing the korban is far more effective in internalizing this message than mere moralizing could ever be.
If we consider the idea that the Chinuch is suggesting we come to remarkable conclusion, namely, that even a sin done b’shogeg is a sign of an insufficiently internalized moral and religious value system. Rav Hirsch makes this very point, when he explains that any sin is in fact an indication of a loss of the necessary intensity a person should routinely bring to the connection between Torah and his or her life. By sinning, especially b’shogeg, a person demonstrates that he has withdrawn from a position where the teachings and values of the Torah unconsciously permeate all of one’s actions. The atonement is through the sacrifice.
This dovetails with Rav Hircsh’s understanding of a korban. Rav Hirsch feels that the word korban is mistranslated as “sacrifice”, pointing out that the root of the word is from the Hebrew KRV, which means to come close. The purpose of a korban is to give man the tools to approach God and stay near Him. In this context, there is no question why one is required to bring the korban as means for atonement. It is not the korban that atones, but the act of bringing it that creates an environment of atonement.
As a last observation, I would like to mention an idea from the ARI”ZL, as quoted by R. Yehuda Nachshoni in his book Hagoat B’Parshiot HaTorah. The ARI refers to the prohibition of eating or owning even a minute amount of Chametz during Pessach, and declares that one who is careful to avoid even the smallest quantity of Chametz during Pessach is ensured of a year without sin. This is, of course, a difficult statement to accept at face value. What could prevent a person from sinning if he so desired? Rav Nachshoni answers that the ARI is in fact referring to sinning b’shogeg. An individual who is so exacting as to avoid even the minutest amount of Chametz is an individual who has fully internalized Torah and Mitzvot and will not come to sin unintentionally. It is simply foreign to his personality.
As it should be to ours.
Shabbat Shalom V’Chag Kasher V’Samaech