The world of Leviticus can be disorienting, especially in the chapters which focus on the details of the korbanot, the sacrifices with all of their bloody and smoky mess. Upon closer examination, each of these ancient forms of worship is recognizably connected to a modern mode of worship. We too approach God at times with awe, uttering words of praise that have no agenda other than worship—this is how I understand the olah or burnt offering. We too approach God at times with gratitude for the blessings of our lives—this is how I understand the shlamim, or wholesomeness offering. And we too approach God at times from a sense of brokenness—either accidental or intentional—and seek in our divine encounter the path back to wholeness. This is how I understand the various forms of hattat or purification offering. These categories connect to the three modes of the daily Amidah—praise, petition, and thanksgiving—and they establish a balanced theology of worship.
Still, this carefully ordered structure must contend with messy missteps, including the most frustrating form—those that are not intentional or even negligent, but truly innocent. In chapter 4 there is discussion of mistakes—what if a person sins by mistake? What if a priest sins by mistake? What if the entire people sins by mistake? The first two cases are expected, but how is it possible for the entire nation to sin by mistake? At some point isn’t there safety in numbers? Apparently not. At Lev. 4:13 the Torah says, “If the entire congregation of Israel sins, and a matter is hidden from the eyes of the congregation, and they do one of the commandments which should not be done, and they sin….” Restitution involves an ornate and bloody ritual of expiation for the sin of the community.
The Torah’s concern seems clear enough, but it takes some interesting interpretive twists in the classical rabbinic and then medieval and mystical stages to reflect later concerns of Jewish spirituality. The rabbis do not take the Torah literally to mean that the entire nation of Israel sins—rather, in Midrash Sifre, “the community” refers to the high court, the Sanhedrin. From this understanding, the Talmud in tractate Horayot proceeds to consider the culpability of individual judges/sages for the mistakes of the high court. At some point a judge cannot follow the majority but must assert independent reasoning and teach that which is right. It is complicated, however, since a judge who steps out of line is at risk of being deemed a zaken mamre—a rebellious elder—and put to death. This passage reminds us of the importance of selecting judges of high integrity, ones who are courageous enough to stand up against a mob, but who are not simply stubborn on principle and unwilling to listen to the wisdom of their peers and of the public. The rabbis seem less concerned with the spiritual state of the entire nation, and more with the integrity of its judicial elite—hence the entire people of Israel comes to mean the entire judiciary. Continue reading