Torah Fax    

Friday - Shabbat March 19 - 20

Torah Reading:  VaYikra (Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26)
Candle Lighting Time 6:48 PM
Shabbat ends 7:49 PM 

Heads Up

The book of Vayikra-Leviticus that we commence reading this week deals primarily with the various offerings that one would bring to the Temple. Some of these offerings were intended as atonements for certain transgressions that were committed unwittingly.

In some instances, one would bring two different offerings: one was a chatat-sin offering and the other an olah-a burnt offering. The difference between them was that the sin offering—that was partially burnt on the altar and partially eaten by the Kohain-Priest—was to help the person atone for the actual commission of a sin, while the burnt offering—that was entirely consumed by the fire of the Altar—was intended as a “gift” to “pacify” G‑d and restore the relationship between the Jew who sinned and G‑d to its original position.

When the Torah discusses these two offerings it makes a point of emphasizing that the chatat-sin offering was always offered before the olah-burnt offering. However, the Talmud notes that there is one exception to this general rule. When an offering is brought for the sin of idol worship the order is reversed. First a burnt offering is brought and then a sin offering!

The question that arises here is why the Torah reverses the order of the two offerings exclusively with regard to idolatry? Logic dictates that we must first atone for the commission of the actual crime before the burnt offering, which is a gesture meant to repair the relationship between a Jew and G‑d after the sin is atoned for. Wouldn’t it be foolish, after having a verbal scuffle with a friend, to send him flowers before working things out with that person? Normally, one would try to make amends and then attempt to restore the relationship to its original position.

This matter is actually much more problematic considering the fact that the one sin where this exception is made is the most serious sin of idol worship. Why would this most serious transgression not require atoning first for the actual sin before making a “gesture?”

Upon closer examination we will see that this anomaly applies specifically to a case where the members of the Sanhedrin erred and ruled that a certain form of idol worship is permissible. As a result, following the directive of the High Court, the Jewish people mistakenly engaged in an idolatrous practice.

The problem here is not idolatry in its literal sense. Obviously, the Sanhedrin would be well aware that believing in other g-ds is a most serious breach of faith in the one G‑d, the very foundation of Judaism!

We must therefore assume that they did not permit this form of worship so as to allow the people to express a belief in another g-d, G‑d forbid. Their erroneous ruling “merely” represented an error in judgment on their part, thinking that an empty gesture to an idol one does not believe in would be meaningless and therefore innocuous.

One scenario where this could have happened, we might suggest, would be in a case where a question was posed to the Sanhedrin as to whether it would be permitted to stage a play in which the actor would engage in an idolatrous act, such as bowing down to an idol. The Sanhedrin might erroneously rule that since it is only an act, it did not represent a breach of faith.

In this situation there are actually two distinct sins committed by the judges of the Sanhedrin for which two forms of atonement were necessary:

The first sin is their faulty judgment. That the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people can so distort Jewish law as to permit an idolatrous act under any circumstances was a sign that their whole thought process was warped. It was now their responsibility to atone for the perverse way of thinking that led to this degenerate situation.

Second: They bore the responsibility for so many Jews who engaged in Judaism’s most serious transgression and the spiritual harm it caused. And for this they must obviously also atone.

We can now understand why, in this scenario, the burnt offering preceded the sin offering.

The Talmud tells us that there is another salient difference between the sin offering and the burnt offering with regard to their atonement potentials. The sin offering atones for one’s sinful actions, whereas the burnt offering atones for ones sinful thoughts. 

It is now understandable why with regard to the sin of idolatry, the burnt offering is brought before the sin offering. When a person sins their act is a composite of an action and a thought. Generally, the act is a more severe problem than the thought that accompanies it. To illustrate: To hit someone is much worse than to harbor a desire to hit someone. We therefore bring the sin offering first and then we bring the burnt offering. First we deal with the damaging behavior and then the erroneous thoughts that preceded the act.

However, with respect to the Sanhedrin that erred in its ruling concerning an idolatrous practice we must reverse the order of the sacrifices. This can be explained several ways. 

When we analyze the role of the Sanhedrin in this matter it is clear that the two transgressions for which they must atone are two independent ones. First, it is their faulty judgment and thought process that corrupted the Torah. Second, they are also responsible for the idolatrous actions of the nation. And since their erroneous thought process preceded the actions of the people—and is independent of it, for they could have misinterpreted the Torah and not caused anyone to sin—they would therefore first bring the burnt offering which is dedicated to atone primarily for thoughts.

In addition, when reflecting on the degree of seriousness of these two sins, one can argue that the former—erroneous ruling of the Sanhedrin—is a more serious and damaging breach of Judaism than the actions of the masses that they inspired.

To explain:

The Sanhedrin assumed two intertwined roles: They were the heads and brains of the people who were responsible for interpreting the Torah. Indeed, as Maimonides writes, they were the very embodiment of Torah inasmuch as they represented the transmission and interpretation of the Oral Torah from one generation to the next. When they distorted the Torah so egregiously—and their role as heads was tainted—they undermined the integrity of the entire Torah.

The Sanhedrin also assumed a second role. They were the leaders who represented the entire Jewish nation and whose job it was to guide and inspire the people and not sit in their ivory towers (read: judicial chambers) as do the justices in most secular societies. And when they erred, causing the people to transgress, they caused great harm to the people they represented. Instead of lifting up the people, they brought them down. 

By bringing the burnt offering first they were addressing their role as heads first, and then their role as leaders. Before a Jewish leader can lead, his Torah credentials must be impeccable. One cannot be a leader—all good intentions notwithstanding—without being firmly anchored in the Torah.

When Maimonides discusses the qualifications of the ultimate leader, the Moshiach who will usher in the final Redemption, he writes that he must be a leader who is “steeped in Torah study and scrupulously committed to all of its precepts” who then influences the people to follow in the path of Torah. Only after that will he usher in the final era of Redemption.  

The reason for highlighting this qualification is that Moshiach’s role and objective is not to perform miracles (though he might very well do so). His primary role and objective is to restore the Torah to the preeminent position it occupied in Biblical times and further enhance its status and relevance to society. If his objective is to strengthen Torah, he must, first and foremost, be a leader who personifies Torah, and who will not err the way the Sanhedrin might have in the past. (For the record, this discussion of an erring Sanhedrin is merely theoretical. There is no evidence that any Sanhedrin actually ruled that any form of idolatry was permitted under any circumstances).

And since the Ba’al Shem Tov taught us that we all possess a spark of Moshiach, our role in these auspicious times as we stand ready to enter into the Messianic Age is to strengthen our identification with the pure teachings of the Torah, so our heads and thought processes are clear.

When we actualize our spark of Moshiach through Torah study—and especially through the teachings of the Torah concerning Moshiach and the Age of Redemption—we will hasten the unfolding of this process.  

Moshiach Matters  

"Since we find ourselves extremely close to the moment of the redemption, we have to increase our yearning for Moshiach to the extent that we will be recognizably changed people. It should be obvious to all that - even in the last moments of exile - we are totally prepared to welcome Moshiach." (The Rebbe, Shabbat HaGadol, 1990)  

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