Rabbi Yair Robinson
So let’s talk about sin and guilt, everyone’s favorite topics. Actually, I’d suggest they are often our favorite topics, as long as we’re talking about someone else’s. Leviticus is, perhaps unfairly, famous for being focused on the question of guilt and sin. Except that’s not quite right. It’s not that the text is especially interested in the error of judgement, the failure of the individual, as if to dismiss the individual forever as beyond the pale. Rather, the text seems to seek to normalize error; we are, after all, only human, with all of our foibles and frailties. Leviticus, then, seeks to explore methods through which that human error can be corrected. The text, in its descriptions of sacrifices and offerings, is very much focused on restitution and reconciliation, and dare I say it, redemption. Or, to put it another way, and to evoke my drash from last week and my teacher Shai Held, the question Leviticus seems to be trying to answer is how to reestablish order from the chaos of our actions, to repair what has been broken.
Which makes our text for tonight, Leviticus 5, especially interesting. In it we have the description of various kinds of sins, specifically sins between people: withholding testimony, or touching something that renders you spiritually unfit, or making an oath and not fulfilling it. No surprises so far. But the word that is used for a person, ‘nefesh’, is a striking one. Often this is translated as ‘soul’, or more accurately, ‘breath’, or even better, ‘throat’, and the word is repeated over and over again, “ki haNefesh”, when a person. On top of that, the kicker for each of these sins is that the perpetrator has discovered her guilt, as if they hadn’t previously been aware, and only now have realized what happened.
What’s going on with our text? Why continuously call the person ‘nefesh’, and why the emphasis on realizing one’s guilt? The Or HaChaim, a Moroccan Jewish scholar of the late 17th century, has a really interesting take. He imagines the ‘nefesh’ as someone who has sinned before; more specifically, he has committed that exact sin before, in the past. But now, this time, as they are repeating their mistakes, they have an ‘a-ha’ moment, realizing what they have done wrong, and now seeks to repent, or if we prefer, to repair the breach. It is, to use a metaphor preferred by Emmanuel Levinas, a moment where the person wakes up, as if out of a deep sleep, to what she is supposed to do and be in the world.
This is, as we know, easier said than done. Boy, do we not want to admit our guilt: because we’re ashamed, because we’re afraid of the consequences, because we don’t recognize the version of us who did it; we want to distance ourselves from that version of ourselves. This text insists that we own it, wants us to own it, not to cast us into exile; these people are not cast out of the community, but to restore, to repair, to reconcile; to loosen the tightness in our throat and breathe again. So long as we avoid responsibility, avoid consequence, we also avoid growth; we deny ourselves the opportunity to become better, and allow our errors to have power over us, to define us. May we, therefore, allow ourselves those a-ha moments, and allow ourselves to repair and discover who we are meant to be. Amen.