You Shall Pursue

March 9, 2014

D’var Torah: Sacrifices of the Heart

Filed under: D'var Torah — marleyweiner @ 11:04 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Paula Deen. After her offensive comments last year, she is back in the news. And I am remembering all of the flurry around those comments. So often, when someone in the public eye says something offensive, they deflect by saying that they weren’t intending to be cruel. It seems almost impossible that people can be wrong gracefully in public, and this leads to lots of hurt feelings, and very little change in behavior.

This week’s portion offers an antidote to the way that Amercians talk about being wrong in public. It talks about the offerings of animals and grain and oil that the Isralites brought to the Temple for a variety of situations, to give thanks and to atone. I want to focus on the sin offering. As God lays out the various aspects of the sin offering, we learn that we must bring a sin for individual sins, for communal sins, for sins that we commit knowingly, and for sins that we commit unknowingly. ALL of these are sins. All damage the integrity of the community, and a ritual must be performed to set the community right.

God understands, and seeks to teach the people, that it doesn’t matter the intention behind the statement sometimes. What matters is that someone has been hurt. Whether this sin is intentional or not, the Israelite must bring his or her sacrifice, and whether or not we intend to hurt, we must seek to address our wrongdoing.

How many of us have been in a position where we discovered that we had offended, or hurt, and were required to make it right in public? Whether having to apologize to a group of friends for an insensitive comment, or at work for an error in our duties, it can be hard to admit that you have done something, whether knowingly or unknowingly, that has hurt someone else.

On Yom Kippur we all confess our sins together, but in Leviticus, there is a different model. The sinner must come to the Tabernacle and bring a sacrifice. The Israelites know what it means when someone arrives before the Tent of Meeting with a particular offering. It is a way for the sinner to publicly show that they have incurred guilt, and that they are making right. It may have been painful for the person bringing the offering to recognize that the community would know about their transgression, but they are required to do it to keep the community intact.

Last year, a close friend of mine went through a very challenging time. They were hurting, and in pain, and often angry, and so often spending time with them was an experience in going through the emotional ringer. And I was busy with my own life, so I was not nearly as supportive as I could have been. It came time for Rosh Hashanah, and I knew that I needed to apologize for not being a better friend. But it was so hard. What if they didn’t forgive me? What if they lorded my bad behavior over me in the future? Saying that I was wrong was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but it was necessary for keeping our relationship alive.

Sometimes we must sacrifice our pride on the altar of loving relationships. To be willing to atone, out loud, for our wrongdoing. According to the Malbim, a nineteenth century Russian Rabbi, the most important thing that a leader can do is to be scrupulous about bringing sacrifice for sins, because he can serve as an example to others. And so can each of us serve as a leader, by being willing to stand up and admit our wrongdoing. Our relationships will be that much stronger, and the people around us will hopefully, be willing to sacrifice their pride as well and admit to their own wrongdoings.

But there is another side to this story. It is not only important to atone, there must also be acceptance of the atonement of others. And how do we make this possible?

We learn that as well from the portion. “The priest shall make expiation on his behalf for the error that he committed unwittingly, and he shall be forgiven.” When someone comes before us in genuine repentance, it is a moment in which we are like a priest, with the power to grant pardon or to withhold it. Just as we come before our fellow with remorse and openness to change, so too must we greet the sacrifice of the apology with an acknowledgment that it is a sacrifice, that the person is giving something of his or her self to stand before us.

Repentance is inherently a challenge. In the Bible, we gave of our material wealth to make up for our sins, and today, we must give of our hearts. But just as Leviticus serves as a blueprint for a functional Israelite society that was able to maintain holiness, so too should we see sacrifice as an integral part of building a stronger and holier community today.

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