The Dimensions of Sin
Family Edition

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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

Parshat Vayikra devotes an extended section to the chattat, the sin offering, as brought by different individuals, including the Kohen Gadol, other leaders, and various community members. The whole passage sounds strange to modern ears, not only because korbanot have not been offered for almost two millennia since the destruction of the Second Temple, but also because it is hard for us to understand the very concepts of sin and atonement as they are dealt with in the Torah.

The interesting thing to note is that the sins for which an offering had to be brought were those committed accidentally (be–shogeg), not intentionally, when the sinner had forgotten the law or some other relevant fact.

We usually think of sin as something we did on purpose, giving into temptation perhaps, or in a moment of rebellion. But this type of sin cannot be atoned for by an offering at all. For that kind of deliberate, conscious, intentional sin, the only adequate moral response is teshuvah, repentance. So, how can we make sense of the sin offering?

The answer is that there are three dimensions of wrongdoing between us and God. The first is guilt and shame. When we sin deliberately and intentionally, we know inwardly that we have done wrong. Our conscience – the voice of God within the human heart – tells us that we have done wrong.

The second dimension is that regardless of guilt and responsibility, we have objectively transgressed a boundary if we commit a sin. The word chet means to miss the mark, stray, or deviate from the proper path. We have committed an act that somehow disturbs the moral balance of the world. To take a secular example, imagine your car has a faulty speedometer. You are caught by a police officer driving at 50 miles per hour in a 40-mph zone. You tell the officer who stops you that you didn’t know. Your speedometer was only showing 40 miles per hour. The police may sympathise, but you have still broken the law, and you will still have to pay the penalty.

That is what a sin offering is. According to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, it is a penalty for carelessness. According to the Sefer HaChinuch, it is an educational and preventive measure. Deeds, in Judaism, are the way we train the mind. The fact that you have had to pay the price by making a sacrifice will make you take greater care in the future.

This brings us to the third dimension of sin: that it defiles. It leaves a stain on one’s character.

The sin offering is not about guilt but about other dimensions of transgression. One of the strange features of Western civilisation is that we tend to think about morality and spirituality as matters almost exclusively involving the mind and its motives. But our acts leave traces in the world, and even unintentional sins can leave us feeling defiled.

The law of the sin offering reminds us that we can harm others unintentionally, which can have psychological consequences. The best way to make things right is to bring a sacrifice—to do something that costs us something.

In ancient times, that took the form of a sacrifice offered on the altar at the Temple. Nowadays, the best way to do so is to give money to charity (tzedakah) or act kindly to others (chessed).

Charity and kindness are our substitutes for sacrifice, and, like the sin offering of old, they help mend what is broken in the world and our soul.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. In the absence of the Mishkan and korbanot (offerings), what are the modern equivalents of making a ‘sacrifice’ for our unintentional wrongdoings?
  2. In what ways do consequences educate or prevent future mistakes in our lives, and in our community?
  3. Think of other times that people brought korbanot in the Tanach. What kinds of emotions were they trying to communicate to Hashem?
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Parsha in Passing

God summons Moshe from within the Ohel Moed to relay the instructions regarding the offerings, known as korbanot, to be presented in the Mishkan. One such korban is the Olah, entirely consumed by fire on the altar as an act dedicated to God.

Another, the Korban Minchah, is made with refined flour, olive oil, and frankincense. The Korban Shelamim are shared offerings; one part is burnt on the altar, one portion is given to the priests, and the remainder is consumed by the offeror. 

Also included in the list of korbanot are various Korban Chattot, which are brought for unintentional sins. Each Korban Chattat is tailored to the transgressor’s role in society, whether that of the Kohen Gadol, the whole community, a leader, or an ordinary individual.

Lastly, the Korban Asham is brought for specific wrongdoings, including misuse of sacred property, uncertainty over a potential violation of a Divine command, or deceiving another person under oath, which is considered an act of betrayal against God.

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Parsha People

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Korban Olah: I am a korban that goes up in smoke, a Divine signal; no words spoke.

Korban Minchah: I am composed of grains so fine, I’m mixed with oil, holy by design.

Korban Asham: I represent guilt’s heavy load, a sacred way to clear the road.

Korban Chattat: Although you have sinned, it was a mistake. So bring this korban – we must fix what we break.

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Parsha Philosophy

Rabbi Sacks points out how much of the Torah is dedicated to detailing the types of sin offerings. Curiously, though, most of the sin offerings are brought when the “sinner” sins unintentionally. This emphasis on accidental sins suggests a profound understanding of human nature and ethics in the Torah. It acknowledges that humans are fallible, often erring not out of malice but from oversight or ignorance.

The requirement of a sin offering for such errors highlights the importance of accountability and the pursuit of personal growth, even in the absence of intent to do wrong. It teaches that actions have consequences, regardless of intention, and that rectifying our mistakes is critical to spiritual and communal life. This focus on atonement for unintentional sins serves as a reminder of our responsibility to continually reflect on our actions, learn from our errors, and strive towards a more conscious and intentional way of living, fostering a community rooted in understanding, forgiveness, and improvement.

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Parsha Playoff

To play “The Giving Korban” stand or sit in a circle. The game begins with one person performing a small, symbolic act of giving to the person on their right — a compliment, a word of encouragement, or a gesture of kindness like a hug or a high five. The recipient then turns to the person on their right, offering a different act of giving. Continue around the circle until everyone has given and everyone has received. The final person directs their act of giving back to the first person, completing the circle.

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Parsha Practical

The mitzva of bringing offerings (korbanot) is obviously a practical mitzva in the parsha of Vayikra. But since we can no longer bring physical korbanot, as this can only be done in the context of a Holy Temple, Rabbi Sacks offers the next best thing: Tzedakah. As he writes, “Nowadays, the best way of [bringing korbanot] is to give money to charity (tzedakah) or perform an act of kindness to others (chessed).”

This may sound easy. Empty your change purse and put a few coins into the tzedakah box at the grocery store counter. But let’s push ourselves a step further. The sin offering is a reparation for a wrong we unintentionally did. Bringing the Korban Chattat was costly, so our tzedakah and chessed today should also be slightly out of our comfort zones.

Consider what the people around you need. Perhaps giving tzedakah is the most helpful action for some. But maybe it’s about checking on your lonely or elderly neighbour, bringing a meal to a family with a new-born baby, or to a community member recovering from an illness. In what way can you offer some of yourself to someone else?

By engaging in these acts, we not only fulfil a commandment, but we can also weave a more robust, more compassionate fabric into our communities, embodying the spirit of the Korban Chattat in a profoundly personal and impactful way.

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Parsha Parable

The Sorry Plate

Every week, Rachel Farber looked forward to her visits to the city community centre, where her class packed food parcels for those in need, planned games for small children, and attended other special community events.

One day, Rachel learned that her favourite teacher, Morah Goldstein, was organising a special tzedakh auction at the centre to raise money for families in Yerushalayim who needed extra food for their tables. Eager to help, Rachel arrived early and got straight to work arranging the display table for the auction items, including a collection of unique, delicate pieces donated by other community members.

But, oh no! In her excitement to help assemble everything, Rachel rushed past the table and accidentally bumped into it, causing a hand-painted ceramic plate – a prized piece for the auction – to fall and break.

The moment the plate shattered, Rachel’s soul split into a million pieces. Her eyes filled with tears, and her heart filled with regret over her mistake.

Seeing Morah Goldstein’s disappointment, Rachel immediately apologised for the mishap, promising to make it better. But what could she do? “Aha!” Rachel thought to herself, “I could make a new plate…”

After school, Rachel went shopping with the little money she had and bought paints and a large white plate. Then she got to work.

When it was time for the auction, Rachel presented her new handmade ‘sorry’ plate to the community. Everyone was delighted to see Rachel’s special gift, knowing it had come from her heart as a way to make a broken situation complete again.

Of course, her plate sold for the most money – and Morah Goldstein and Rachel were so proud to be able to raise more than enough for those in need.

the sorry plate a hand painted yellow ceramic plate smashed and broken into many pieces
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Parsha Ponderings

What Would You Do…

…if someone you know unintentionally damaged something vital to you? How would you expect them to strike the balance of apologising while simultaneously preserving their dignity?

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Parsha Puzzle


What is the saltiest passuk in the Torah?

(See below for the answer)

This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:

Vayikra 2:13 contains four words that are connected to melach (salt) which makes this the ‘saltiest’ passuk.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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