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Vayikra/Leviticus 5:17 And if a soul shall sin ... but did not know and was guilty and bears his iniquity
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This is the start and end of a verse close to the end of this week's Torah portion. The full text - re-arranged somewhat in English translation - looks like this: "And when a person, without knowing it, sins in regard to any of the L-RD's commandments about things not to be done, and then realizes his guilt, he shall be subject to punishment" (Vayikra 5:17, JPS). The text gives us a clear vision of two characters: the obvious subject of the text and the narrator. The difference in their points of view is important; the 'soul' is in a state of uncertainty or confusion - have they sinned or not? They do not know. The narrator, on the other hand, knows that the 'soul' has sinned, and so can be definite about what to do. As may be expected, the Jewish tradition revels in this uncertainty, offering a variety of ways of understanding the text and the way forward.
Since it may be difficult to imagine a situation where someone might have sinned and not know it, so that there is a genuine uncertainty,Rashi starts by telling a little story to provide an illustrative scenario. "Consider," he says, "a man who has two pieces of fat before him and he eats one. Later, he discovers that one was forbidden fat1, but he does not know which one - whether he had eaten that one or the other. To complete the illustration, the man had a Gentile guest who has eaten the other piece of fat, so that it is now impossible to examine either to try and tell which piece was which. So what's the problem, you may say, simply offer a sin offering just in case and move on. After all, the Ramban points out, "in doubt, he must bring a ram to value of several shekels of silver, whereas if the sin is confirmed, he brings a sin offering that could be worth much less, perhaps as little as half a dinar." No, Rabbi Hirsch explains, that won't work: "the difficulty is that the halacha is that no sin-offering of any kind may be brought without a specific cause and then only as an obligatory offering." If you haven't sinned, you can't bring a sin offering.
What is the man to do? Rashi explains that "he brings an , a suspended guilt offering and it protects him all the while that he remains uncertain whether he has sinned or not." TheRashbam adds that this is "a provisional guilt offering." The man does not know that he is guilty, but he might be, so without - so to speak - admitting guilt, he makes this "just in case" offering to cover his back. Nahum Sarna reports that, "the rabbinic tradition understands this to mean that the offender did not know for certain, but only suspected, that he may have committed an offence. Certain knowledge of an offence committed (even) inadvertently invokes the law of 4:27-35, but where there is uncertainty, an asham was prescribed to avert G-d's wrath in a preventive way." Sarna points out too that "there is some biblical evidence that sacrifices were offered on this basis. Job 1:5 recounts how Job brought daily burnt offerings on behalf of his children because of the likelihood that in the midst of their feasting and revelry they would unwittingly commit blasphemy."
While the above almost ignores the narrator's assertion that the 'soul' has sinned, even if they are uncertain about it, other commentators take a firmer line.Ibn Ezra, for example, says that "when a person violates a commandment by committing any prohibited act, but does without knowing that the act he committed was prohibited, he must bring the offering of a ram (detailed in the verse following our text)". This assumes - as the narrator says - that the sin has been committed. In Torat Kohanim (Chovah 12:7), "Rabbi Yose says: See that Scripture has punished the one who is unaware that he has sinned. How much more so that it will punish he who is aware", while the Ramban goes even further: "Scripture uses the word 'sin' to indicate to the sinner [since he is in doubt as to whether he has sinned], that if he treats it lightly and will not bring his [offering for] atonement, he will be destroyed by his sin." It is simply a matter of time, they seem to suggest, until the sinner realises his guilt and, if on the contrary, he maintains that he still doesn't know, the sin will destroy him.
Another set of commentators are not as concerned about the original sin - which, following the narrator, they take for granted - as they are about the fact that the sinner doesn't even know if he has sinned or not. OvadiahSforno says that, "whether he sinned inadvertently or perhaps did not lapse into sin at all, his transgression was that he was not careful and slipped into doubt; according to his iniquity he shall bear the punishment." The penalty of the "uncertainty sacrifice" is due for the sin of not being careful enough. As Rabbi Hirsch points out, "the unwitting sinner stumbled because he was slack rather that "trembling at My word" (Isaiah 66:2). Insufficient anxiety to abide by the precepts of the Torah renders the inadvertent transgression as an offence." He then adds a warning that, "this drives home to us how just this wavering doubt over the lawfulness or otherwise of our acts is to be considered as a serious wrong in our behaviour towards G-d, a wrong which threatens our future life with desolation." Rabbi David Tzi Hoffman sums up: "The unwitting sinner requires atonement for his lack of precaution. We are commanded, 'You shall guard My ordinance' (Vayikra 18:30) to ensure that we do not stray from the course delineated by G-d. Hence the inadvertent sinner's need for atonement."2
Surely as believers we are not held to this standard, are we? Yeshua warns the disciples, "Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides" (Mark 4:24, NASB). We must exercise due diligence over - in this case - what we allow ourselves to hear. Rav Sha'ul warns the Corinthians to "take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (1 Corinthians 8:9, NASB); they are to make sure that their liberty - in this case, in the source of the meat they eat - doesn't cause others to sin. He warns the Galatians that - "if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another" (Galatians 5:15, NASB) - fights, even if only at a verbal level, will destroy them. The writer to the Hebrews adds the warning, "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living G-d" (Hebrews 3:12, NASB). We must care care that we don't allow ourselves to become unbelievers, so that our relationship with G-d fails. But these are specifics, particular things that we mustn't do - what about the general case? Do we always have to be so careful about sin? Surely, Yeshua's forgiveness means that sin doesn't matter any more, provided we don't deliberately go out and sin?
Rav Sha'ul disagrees. He asked the Romans, "Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?" (Romans 6:1, NASB). If G-d's forgiveness in Yeshua is so good, and His grace is such a powerful testimony of His love and compassion, a strong pointer to the cross inviting all to come to Him, it could be argued firstly that any sin we might commit really doesn't matter, and secondly that it might even cause more of His grace to be shown, thus glorifying Him even more. Absolutely not, Sha'ul replies, "May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" (v. 2, NASB). We are to consider ourselves dead to sin - that's D-E-A-D, dead - but alive to Father G-d in Messiah Yeshua. "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts," Sha'ul insists, "and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to G-d as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to G-d" (vv. 12-13, NASB). It is a question of ownership and headship. If we sin - deliberately, accidentally, by choice or by negligence - we show that sin is still our master, rather than Yeshua. And, as Sha'ul tersely reminds us, "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of G-d is eternal life in Messiah Yeshua our Lord" (v. 23, NASB). We have a choice to make: are we following Yeshua or are we not? Are we obeying His instructions, "freed from sin and enslaved to G-d" (v. 22, NASB), or are we still indulging our "members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness" (v. 19, NASB).
It seems there is a clear choice: we are either sold out for G-d or sold out to "the world, the flesh and the devil"3? There is no middle path. Yeshua taught about the decision we have to take, saying, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, NASB). The Torah and the Jewish tradition teach that even accidental sin or sin in ignorance needs atonement. Yeshua and the NT writers repeat the need to exercise care and make sure that we do not choose or tolerate sin, even by mistake.
Further Study: Luke 13:22-30; Romans 7:21-25
Application: How do you treat sin? Do you flee from it or do you have a fairly relaxed attitude providing it's nothing too big or serious? Perhaps it's time to tighten up before it's too late!
1. - Fat, for example, from around the kidneys or liver of an animal which is dedicated to HaShem and must be burned on the altar, so is forbidden for human consumption (Shemot 29:22). In a more general case, "The priest shall turn these into smoke on the altar as food, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor. All fat is the L-RD's. It is a law for all time throughout the ages, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood" (Vayikra 3:16-17, JPS).
2. - Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, Commentary on Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus, Mossad Harav Kook (1963), Volume 1, page 124.
3. - Peter Abelard, Expositiones: Tria autem sunt quae nos tentant, caro, mundus, diabolus - There are three things which tempt us, the flesh, the world, and the devil.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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