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Parshiyyot Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777 — 05/06/2017

Parshiyyot Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777 — 05/06/2017

Acharei Mot: Vayikra 16:1-18:30
Kedoshim: Vayikra 19:1-20:27

My daughter’s partner is on the faculty of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He had a graduate student at one point whose dissertation proposal involved a discussion of the concept of sin in the Bible. He asked me what the Hebrew word for sin is. I had to explain that just as Arabs have many words for camel, and the Inuit have many words for snow, Hebrew has many words for sin, as it is an important, and therefore nuanced, concept in Jewish thought. The three terms used in the confession of the High Priest for himself, for the kohanim and for all Israel are: chet, pesha and avon. They are generally translated as unintentional sin, intentional sin (but caused by our inability to control our desires) and rebellious sin (where we know it is wrong and we don’t really get any great pleasure from it, but do it just to rebel against and to anger Gd).

We find these three terms together in the 13 Attributes of Mercy that we recite on Yom Kippur and which appear in the Torah reading for public fast days:

Hashem, Hashem, Gd Merciful and Gracious, extremely patient and great in loving kindness and truth. Preserver of loving kindness for thousands of generations, Forbearing of avon and pesha and chata’ah, and Who cleanses… (Ex 34:6-7)

The prayer of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur includes these three, as well as a prayer for forgiveness that one may insert in the daily Amidah:

Ana Hashem, chatati, peshati, aviti / Please Hashem, I have sinned unintentionally, I have sinned intentionally, I have been rebellious…

The three terms also appear in Vayikra 16:21-22 in our parashah, as Aharon the Kohen Gadol was to lean his hands on the goat that is to be sent away to Azazel and confess “all the sins (avon) of the people of Israel and all their wrongdoings (pesha) and all their transgressions (chet).” Ramchal comments:

On a deeper level these [three terms] may refer to three levels of spiritual damage a person inflicts upon himself via various sins. A person’s soul is comprised of three primary components: nefesh, ruach and neshama. Of the three, the neshama is on the highest level, followed by the ruach, and lastly the nefesh. When sinning, man can potentially damage any of these three spiritual levels depending on the specific sin. Some sins inflict damage upon the neshama while others only inflict damage upon the nefesh or the ruach. The confession removes all categories of sin from the respective level of a person’s soul. We now understand why all three expressions are employed by the Kohen Gadol as part of the confession.

Now the neshama is the highest level of the soul, closest to Gd and purest, so it would seem to me that it would take an avon to damage it. An avon is the kind of sin where we are consciously trying to move away from Gd, to assert our independence as it were, as beings in our own right. This of course is the exact opposite of the direction our neshama wants to go in, and does violence to the very nature of the neshama, thus damaging it. Separating the neshama from its source is damage in and of itself.

Similarly, I would imagine that a pesha would damage the ruach and a chet would damage the nefesh. A chet is an unintentional sin – it is basically caused by some carelessness, like doing something forbidden on Shabbat because one either forgot that it was forbidden, or forgot that it was Shabbat. (Note that if I trip and accidentally fall against a light switch and accidentally turn the light on or off, that is not even an unintentional sin and does not require any kind of repentance – it’s just an accident.) It’s a sin, because if we really valued Gd’s commandments we’d be careful not to make these kind of mistakes. But still, it is a relatively superficial kind of sin – the word chet can also mean, “missing the mark” as in archery. Since it is only a superficial infraction, involving no intention to move away from Gd, it only affects the most superficial aspect of the soul – that part which we share with the animals.

The ruach, which binds the body and neshama, is in between the nefesh and the neshama. As we noted in a previous essay, this part of the soul has the potential to become completely spiritualized, in which case it leaves the body when the body dies, as in the case of Ya’akov. For most of us, however, we have to wait until our bodies decay for the ruach to be liberated and able to move on. In the same way, it takes sins of an intermediate nature – sins committed intentionally, but because of the weakness of our bodies and their inability to resist the allure of physical pleasures, rather than a spiritual rebelliousness – to damage the ruach.

I might point out that just as there are 3 levels of sin, there are also three levels of atonement. We cite these during the Yom Kippur confessional liturgy:

V’al kulam, elokai selichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu
For all of these [sins], Gd of forgiveness, forgive (s’lach) us, pardon (m’chal) us, grant us atonement (kaper).

In an introductory paragraph to the recitation of the passage of the daily offering (korban tamid) in the morning preliminary blessings, the Artscroll prayer book associates these three forms of forgiveness with the three levels of sin:

 May it be Thy Will … to have mercy on us, and to pardon (timchal) us for all our sins (chet), and to atone (t’kapper) for all our rebellious sins (avon) and forgive (tislach) all our willful sins (pesha) …

Pardon (mechilah) is associated with unintentional sins, and thus with the nefesh, the most superficial layer of the soul. Mechilah implies a setting aside of one’s due – we are, in effect, asking Gd to set aside our liability as if it never existed. The same word is used when one forgives a loan – it is as if the loan never existed.

Atonement (kapparah), on the other hand, is much harder to attain. It requires work on our part – a fundamental restructuring of our character and our belief system. The Talmud tells us that some sins can be atoned for by t’shuvah alone, some require Yom Kippur, and some can only be atoned by the death of the sinner, when the soul, finally freed from the body and goes to the world of truth, where rebellion against Gd is impossible in the great light of nearness to Gd. Presumably then kapparah is associated with the neshama and with sins that damage the neshama.

In the middle is forgiveness (s’lichah), associated with the ruach and with intentional, but venal sins. We need t’shuvah for these sins, but the damage is not as severe as those requiring kapparah. Neither is it as easy as Gd’s saying, “Never mind”! It requires making our animal soul a little less animal and a little more soul, so that we are better able to go for the spiritual, eternal values, rather than fleeting, material values.

Deeper levels of nature are more powerful – this is true in physics and it is true in the spiritual world as well. As we grow in spirituality, and begin to tap these deeper layers, our actions become more powerful, far-reaching and consequential. Our tradition gives us guidelines for proper behavior. As we grow, it becomes more and more important that we follow them.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parishiyot Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

“Acharei Mot” means “after the death”, referring to the death of two of Aaron’s sons; “Kedoshim” means “holy.”  Putting them together, Rabbi Yehuda Berg, says “after death, you shall be holy.”  “Death” can be not the death of the physical body but the death of ignorance that prevents us from seeing Gd everywhere.

What can we do to let this ignorance die? Torah, and very much Leviticus, shows us how we can fulfill the meaning of “Levi”: “attach ourselves, pledge ourselves” to Gd. Torah presents us with many mitzvahs.

In Parshah Kedoshim, 19:34, we learn one very important one: “The stranger living with you must be treated as a citizen and you shall love him as you would yourself.”

Necessary therefore, to rise to the level where we fully love ourselves, not just a little but a lot; not just partially but totally; not just our small self but our Big Self. Then we are prepared to fulfill Deuteronomy 6:5,  “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy Gd, with all thy heart and soul and all thy might”: hard to do if we are functioning with the limits of ignorance. Natural life when the limits of ignorance have passed away. We are then naturally living in Gd and effortlessly we are One with Gd, loving Gd fully, no limits.

In Psalms 46:10, we learn another important means to love the stranger and to love Gd within Whom the stranger is an expression:“Be still and know that I am Gd”: rest from activity, cease from activity, let the activity of ignorance die and Know that I am Gd.”

Listening to Torah, reading Torah, reciting Torah can help us rise to the level where our love is full, unlimited. Let us continue doing it.

Baruch HaShem