Said Rabbi Yosa: Why do we begin children in their studies with the Book of Leviticus? We should start them with the Book of Genesis!
Rather, the Holy One said, "Just like the korbanot [sacrifices] are pure, so too are children pure—let's have the ‘pure' engaged with the ‘pure.'" (Midrash Pesikta de Rav Kahana 6:3)
In many ways, this tradition is hard to understand. Why begin a young child's Torah education with something as remote from his or her own life experience as sacrifices and Temple pageantry? Leviticus is difficult for adults to find relevant, let alone children. Give young students the drama of the Exodus and the moment of the Covenant at Sinai. Take children through the family narratives of Genesis that might captivate their imagination as they navigate their own familial dynamics as sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. Teach them the Book of Deuteronomy, which amounts to a review of the entire Torah. But to what ends might we throw them into a world of entrails and gore, the burning of frankincense, the sprinkling of blood, and the choreographies involved with the various sacrificial offerings?
This fifth-century midrash from the Land of Israel gives voice to an essential truth about both Israelite religion and Rabbinic Judaism. Even in a post-Temple world—a world in which we do not offer animal sacrifices (nor do we wish for their return)—korbanot and the service in the Temple still hold a creative role in the religious life of the Jew. I submit that the theology that helps animate the sacrificial system is potentially as meaningful for us as moderns as it may have been for B'nai Yisrael (the Children of Israel) in the desert.
Consider the korban hattat, commonly translated as a "sin offering," which we are introduced to in Leviticus, chapter 4. Jacob Milgrom, one of the more important modern biblical scholars on the Book of Leviticus, has argued based on contextual observations and grammatical considerations that the word hattat does not mean "sin" in this instance. Rather, this construction means "to cleanse, purge, or decontaminate." Consequently, he translates korban hattat as a "purification offering" (see Ezekiel 43:22, 26 and Rashi on Numbers 19:19; see also Milgrom's masterful commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible series).
But this rendering is curious: whom or what does this offering purge?
At first glance, one might think that this sacrifice seeks to purify the person offering the sacrifice. Having unintentionally committed an infraction against one of the laws of the Torah, the individual—once realizing his guilt—must bring a male goat without blemish as an offering (Lev. 4:28). In this way the inadvertent sinner removes the spiritual impurity caused by his behavior. Yet, unlike other "purification offerings" in the Torah that are intended to remove impurity from the individual, a person who brings a korban hattat for the inadvertent violation of a prohibitive commandment does not require immersion in water (contrast this with Leviticus 15). Seemingly, because the sin was unintentional and because he now feels remorse, this means that he has undergone inner purification and no immersion in water is required (Lev. 4:27).
Milgrom also draws attention to the use of the blood in the korban hattat as further proof that it is not the one offering the sacrifice who is undergoing purification. Once the goat is slaughtered, the priest takes some of the animal's blood and puts it on the horns of the altar (Lev. 4:30). In this way, through the use of the animal's blood, the priest decontaminates (va-ye-hatte, 8:15) the altar and the sanctuary. The blood is never applied to a human being in the Torah. The altar is daubed with blood and the blood of the hattat is sometimes brought inside the sanctuary and sprinkled on the curtain (Lev. 16:15). By sprinkling the blood of this sacrifice in these various locations, the priest purifies the most sacred objects and areas of the sanctuary on behalf of the person who caused their contamination by his inadvertent offense.
So to be clear: the consequence of the individual's inadvertent sin is the contamination of the sanctuary. Human behavior affects the sanctuary in a direct way. The Israelite has to bring a korban hattat to purge the impurity residing in the sanctuary that his behavior has created.
And there is urgency for the individual to redress the impurity he or she has caused. In the priestly theology, the sanctuary is God's dwelling place on earth and God will not abide in a polluted sanctum. God will tolerate a measure of impurity in God's house, but it must be managed. If it is left unattended, God will be forced from the sanctuary heavenward (see Ezekiel 11). Impurity and the holy are antagonistic qualities in the Torah.
Yehzkiel Kaufmann, one of the greatest of modern biblical scholars, has observed that in the Ancient world impurity was understood as a demonic force and the pagan temple priests helped purify the temples of the resident gods who battled cosmic evil in the form of impurities. Impurity was an independent force in creation. In ancient Israel, there is no concept of demonic impurity as a force in the world. Kaufmann stressed that in biblical Israel, unlike Near Eastern religions, impurity was a creation of human beings. Human beings, not the demonic, cause problems in the world.
Human beings have the power, through their action and inaction, to contaminate the sanctuary and force God out. This is the theological message of the korban hattat.
Understood in this conceptual framework, sin is any behavior that forces God from this world.
Through the korban hattat, the Torah teaches us that human beings must assume responsibility for the world. The ills of society are not the creation of demonic or random forces. Our behavior has ramifications. We have control over whether our communities are worthy of God's Holy Presence or not.
Is there a more appropriate message than this with which to begin a young student's Torah education?
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.