The Psychology of Sacrifice

Vayikra By :  Joshua Heller Posted On Mar 31, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

The sacrificial order laid out in the fourth and fifth chapters of the book of Leviticus may seem alien to modern readers, but in its textual organization and minutiae of ritual, it reflects a deep psychological understanding of the nature of error and atonement in public and private life. The text of chapter 4 follows a hierarchy of potential transgressors, relating the appropriate sacrifices to atone for the high priest who somehow leads the nation astray, for the entire community that errs, or if the Nasi– the elected leader- commits an individual sin.

The Torah demonstrates remarkable wisdom even in recognizing that each of these forces in public life is capable of going astray. One need not look far to find groups that proclaim the axiomatic infallibility of their religious leadership. And yet, years of study do not always result in moral integrity, and even the deepest piety is not insurance against the possibility of honest error.

By the same token, others within Jewish life grant an inappropriate sanctity to the religious choices made by lay people. It is true that our ancient sages showed great reverence for the natural piety of common folk. More than once in the Talmud a dispute of law is resolved with the dictum “Puk Hazei Mai Amma Davar – go see what the people are doing” (Berachot 45a, Eiruvin 14b), as if to say that the word on the street is a reflection of the divine word. The sage Hillel, when unsure of the ruling on a particular question related to Passover which falls on the eve of Shabbat, took this view to an even more extreme level. He declared that the law should follow whatever the popular practice was. “The children of Israel, even if they are not themselves prophets, are certainly the children of prophets.” (T. B. Pesahim 66a), he said. His words implied that Jewish popular practice, as it evolves, is an echo of prophecy, an unconscious vision of the will of God.

Indeed, many rich customs have survived within Judaism, outside of, or even despite, the will and writ of the rabbis. Daniel Sperber’s “Minhagei Israel,” one of my favorite works of Jewish scholarship, catalogs and explains dozens of these folk practices and local customs. And yet, there is a limit to the applicability of this principle. Vox Populi cannot be viewed as equivalent to Vox Dei.Sometimes the community adopts, or seeks to adopt, a practice that is simply wrong, and few are the leaders courageous or foolhardy enough to challenge the force of habit of an entire people known for its stiff-neckedness. In establishing the sacrifice for the entire people that errs, the Torah reminds us that Jewish law is not established by referendum or popular will.

The third public admission of sin, that of the Nasi, is one which bears the least surprise for us today. In ancient times, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai could say “Blessed is the generation whose chosen leader brings a sin-offering” (T.B. Horayot 12b). All leaders might stray, but only a truly great one can engage in a public display of contrition. In contrast, some recent leaders of our civil society have turned acceptance of blame into a meaningless exercise. We have come to expect that each lapse of judgement will be accompanied by an insincere apology or a carefully scripted declaration of penitence. We have grown accustomed to leaders who bring sin offerings that leave us unblessed and unimpressed.

The first three types of sin offerings serve as a reminder that neither the religious nor the political hierarchy nor even the will of the people is infallible. The fourth type of offering reminds us that these forces cannot always be held at fault. Though one might seek to blame religion, or the government, or society as a whole for one’s shortcomings, the Biblical text remind us that it is “nefesh ahat techta“- (Leviticus 4:27) a single individual who sins.

There is an important distinction, though, between the sacrifices for public and private wrongdoing. When any of these major forces in Jewish life goes astray, the recognition must be a distinctive one – a sacrifice whose combination of location, animal and ritual, will be instantly recognizable as a public spectacle. In contrast, though, the Biblical text takes care to note the location where the individual’s sin-offering is to be slaughtered not in terms of its location north of the altar, but rather by saying that it is to be brought to the exact same place where the olah offering is slaughtered. There are in fact minor differences between the two offerings, but they would only be apparent to a close observer or to the priest performing the sacrifice. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (T.B. Sotah 32b) notes that it as if our text is saying that it should not be apparent to the casual observer that a sin-offering is being brought. This observation of the “hidden” nature of the personal hattat reflects a great sensitivity to the role of guilt in repentance. People are often genuinely embarrassed to have done wrong, and admitting the wrong to one’s self and the one who one has wronged are difficult enough without having to proclaim one’s guilt before the assembled masses in the sanctuary. The anonymity of the sin offering removes public embarrassment as a potential barrier to repentance.

Even in its description of the bloody rituals of animal sacrifice, the Bible reflects a sensitivity to human nature. Public, national sins must be declared and atoned for openly, so that the nation will not grow overconfident in the infallibility of its leaders or its own consensus. Personal sins, though, can be atoned for privately, so that the gates of repentance offer the least possible resistance to those who would walk through. The liturgy of Yom Kippur, which has taken the place of the sacrificial ritual, mirrors the very same sensibility. In our quiet prayers on that day, and indeed, on every weekday, we may ask, silently, privately for forgiveness for a host of personal sins. When we pray aloud, though, we do so in unison, in the plural voice so that no individual need stand up and be singled out, and all may seek atonement.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joshua Heller