The Third Party
Of the various sacrifices discussed in Parashat Vayikra, the one which struck me this year had, ostensibly, nothing to do with offending or pleasing God! It concerned a guilt offering brought to God after one had wronged his “neighbor” or “fellow”:
“If 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… ” (Leviticus 5:21).
The Torah goes on to tell us that the sinner must not only repay his neighbor the principal amount due, and add a fifth part to it — he must also bring to God a reparation or guilt offering. My question when reading this (asked centuries ago, as well, by our sages) was — why is this offense against a neighbor also seen as a sin against God? All the other sacrifices mentioned in the parashah are connected with sins directly related to God or God’s sanctuary, or with an outpouring of thanksgiving to God. Why, in these “civil” offenses between two human beings, was there any mention of reparation to God at all?
Rabbi Akiva, the famous second century sage, explained that when two parties to a transaction conduct their business through deeds and witnesses, a denial of the obligation constitutes a repudiation of the witnesses and the deed. But someone who deposits something with his neighbor does not want a soul to know about it, other than the Third Party between them. When he denies his obligation, he rejects the Third Party (i.e. God) between them.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German scholar, fleshed out Rabbi Akiva’s words in this way: “Every transgression committed by man against his neighbor is tantamount to rebellion and trespass against the Almighty . . He, as it were, is the Third Party, the unseen witness to all human transactions and the guarantor that they will be conducted in honest fashion. Since here the defaulter called on the name of the guarantor during his denial, that is, he swore falsely by the name of God, this is not just false dealing. The Jew attests to the honesty of his conduct by his priestly role of nearness to his God. Since his calling on the name of God was purely an empty and vain deception, the term fitting it best is of trespass against God.”
This passage in Parashat Vayikra is yet another reminder to us of the ethical standards to which we are held. Whether stated on paper, or just acknowledged by a handshake, we are to live up to the commitments we make. Religion is not only rituals and spiritual moments spent in the Divine Presence. It is living every day and going about our work and our social interactions with honesty and integrity. Being devoted to God and God’s commandments means more than saying the right prayers at the right time and living by the religious calendar. It means treating our fellow human beings with honesty and respect, keeping our word, and living every day ethically. If we fail in this mandate, we have failed not only our fellow human beings, but we have failed God, too. God is the unseen Third Party in all of our “transactions” — and if we can always bear that in mind, we can live richer, fuller and more meaningful lives.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.