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D’var Torah Vayikra

Shabbat Shalom:

I know people who apologize frequently, and often for things for which
they need not apologize. I am not sure what that says about them, but I
think they would enjoy Asham Talui.

I often remember things that I have forgotten (my subconscious has had
lots of practice), but I wonder how many things I have forgotten that I
never remember. Here is this week’s D’var Torah:

Just in Case
Ilana Kurshan

The typology of sacrifices in parshat Vayikra offers a window into the various reasons a person might wish to draw close to God. These sacrifices fall into two main categories: There are voluntary sacrifices offered out of gratitude and thanksgiving; and then there are obligatory sacrifices, most notably the sin offerings to atone for wrongdoing. Somewhere between them is a sacrifice known as the Asham Talui, the conditional guilt offering, which speaks to the complexity of assuming personal responsibility in a world of uncertainty.

The Asham Talui is offered when an individual suspects that she might have committed a grave offense but can’t be sure. If the individual knew with certainty, she would bring a sin offering, which would involve confessing her sin before the priest. In the case of the Asham Talui, however, she cannot confess because she can’t be sure she did anything wrong. Instead, she merely brings the sacrificial animal to the Temple, and the priest makes expiation on her behalf. Like the obligatory sin offering, this sacrifice serves to atone. But like the voluntary offerings, this impetus for this sacrifice comes from within – the individual wishes to clear the record just in case she is at fault.

The Torah does not offer examples of the types of situations that might require an Asham Talui, stating only that it applies “when a person, without knowing it, sins in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done” (5:17). But the Talmud (Kidushin 81b) explains that whenever Rabbi Akiva came to this verse, he would cry, lamenting that if a person is unsure of his sin and still has to bear his iniquity, all the more so must this be true for a person who sinned knowingly. Rabbi Akiva uses the example of an individual who meant to eat permitted fat, but instead may have mistakenly eaten forbidden fat. The person can’t be sure which fat he ate, and so he brings a sacrifice just in case. Rabbi Akiva is distressed by the weight of human responsibility – we are accountable not just for sins we know we committed, but even for those of which we are not fully aware.

But the Talmud tells of another sage who had a very different approach to the Asham Talui. Bava ben Buta, a disciple of Shammai, used to offer an Asham Talui every day out of concern that he might have sinned unawares. The only day of the year he did not bring this sacrifice was on Yom Kippur, because it would be redundant to atone for guilt on the day that all sins are forgiven. The Mishnah (Keritut 6:3) relates that in fact Bava ben Buta was so obsessively preoccupied with his fear of sin that he wished to bring a sacrifice on Yom Kippur as well; the only reason he didn’t was because the other sages forbade him.

For Bava ben Buta, there was a tremendous sense of security in knowing that he could rid himself of potential guilt. And he is not alone. The Talmud recognizes that the Asham Talui played an important psychological role, explaining that it serves “to protect a person from suffering” (Keritut 26b) because “the Torah is concerned for the bodies of Israel” (Keritut 25a). Sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you quite a lot. For individuals like Bava ben Buta, one gets the sense that it would be impossible to keep putting one foot in front of another without a way to atone for all the microscopic critters he was potentially trampling with every step.

We live in a world in which we cannot always know if we are doing the right thing, or if we have done something wrong. While it would probably be crippling to live plagued by doubtful sin like Bava ben Buta, it would be presumptuous and even dangerous to assume that any of us, with our limited perspective, can see the full repercussions of our actions. The wrongs we commit matter even when we are not aware of them, and they require redress. And so we give charity, and we offset our carbon footprint, and we reach out to friends we have not heard from in a while – because who can be certain that everything we own is ours, and that we have not done our share of damage to our planet, and that something we said or did is not the cause of prolonged estrangement. If we each bear responsibility for the sins we may have committed unintentionally—if we each bring our offerings out of doubt—perhaps we will begin to find ourselves, and our world, in a better place.

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