This week, we begin a new book of the Torah, Vayikra. Also known as “Torat Kohanim”, “Instructions for the priests”, the book focuses on instructions for Aaron and his sons as they learn to perform the sacrifices that God has prescribed on behalf of the Israelite people.
This week’s portion, also called Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26) mostly consists of listing the practical components of the sacrifices in detail. We might think that these words have little to do with our modern world. The sacrifices we offer to God come from our hearts and minds rather than from our flocks and herds. But while the concept of animal sacrifice may be foreign, the reasons for which our ancestors brought the sacrifices are entirely comprehensible. Those outlined in this parashah are the shlamim, the offering of well-being, the hattat, for the unintentional commission of a sin, and the asham, offered for a sin of omission.
The medieval text Sefer ha-Chinuch asks why it is necessary for a person to make an offering for an iinadvertent act, and the text’s anonymous author reasons as follows: “Perhaps we must atone for inadvertent sins because the misdeed, though inadvertent, weighs on our conscience until we do something to atone for it. Because verbal regrets do not strike us as adequate, we must give up something to show our remorse.” This 13th century analysis of a ritual, as well as the ancient text that prescribes the ritual, shows that although times and rites may change, the human conscience remains remarkably the same.