Vayikra: Knowing to Return

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: VayikraShabbat HaHodesh

“When a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord by dealing deceitfully with his fellow in the matter of a deposit or a pledge, or through robbery, or by defrauding his fellow, or by finding something lost and lying about it; if he swears falsely regarding any one of the various things that one may do and sin thereby —  when one has thus sinned and, realizing his guilt, would restore that which he got [through deceit] . . . . .” (Vayikra./ Leviticus 5:21-23)

Greetings on this beautiful afternoon! 

Sorry about last week, we’ve been having education director candidates visiting TBE all month and it’s been a bit crazy around here. 

But we’re back with everybody’s favorite book of laws and rules in the Torah-Vayikra– which of course is largely concerned with priestly offerings and rituals. These can be quite confusing in their details, especially since none of us has ever seen most of these rituals ever practiced; they were suspended when the ancient Temple was destroyed almost 2000 years ago. 

Yet while not currently practiced (which, as a vegetarian of 31 years, I’m quite OK with), the laws of the priestly can be studied for their ethical and spiritual content, since humans still have the need to celebrate, repent, and atone. Above we have verses which deal with sins against others in matters of deceit, especially in the realm of money and property. What’s interesting about these verses is the implication that at some point after a person tells a lie or does something deceitful, there can be some sort of internal reorientation towards reconciliation and restitution. 

The translation doesn’t really help matters here: can it be that one would lie or steal and not know one’s guilt? Well, sure- people can deceive themselves as well as others, if not better. Our friend Rashi, on the other hand, doesn’t think this means that one didn’t know one was guilty all along, but rather that at some point there is a recognition of the possibility and need for t’shuvah, returning and reconciliation. Then, after one has had a change of heart, as it were, then one can make restitution according to the laws as cited in the verses above. 

Of course, the point of the verses above isn’t about restitution in tort law, it’s about how a human heart is not restricted by past mistakes. At any point, any one of us could realize that there’s something we for which we need to do t’shuvah-  not because we didn’t “know” via intellect of our imperfections, but because emotionally, we had not yet felt the desire to reawaken ourselves and reinvigorate our spiritual commitments. That’s the point of these verses: t’shuvah happens inside first, and can lead to actions which bring wholeness to ourselves, our relationships and communities. The ritual is the outward affirmation of an internal change that’s already begun to unfold. This idea- that a desire for change arises in the heart and properly channeled can change the world- is a core principle of Judaism, then as now. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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