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Sacrifices and Fear of God

Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Vayikra enumerates many sacrifices (korbanot), including those that must be given for inadvertent sins (shogeg). Why must a person give a korban for a sin that he did not flagrantly intend to commit? The commentaries explain that the fact that he allowed himself to commit such a sin, even inadvertently, demonstrates an element of carelessness. Had he been more careful, he would never have allowed himself to get to the point where he could sin. The Torah goes even further and requires that a person who has a doubt as to whether he committed a sin that requires a korban, is required to bring an asham talui (an offering brought when one is doubt as to whether he committed a sin that requires a korban for its attonement)1. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that this korban does not atone for the actual sin (if it was indeed committed), rather it serves as an atonement for the carelessness that caused the doubt to exist2.

It still needs to be understood what is the root cause of the carelessness that leads to inadvertent sins and why bringing korbanot helped atone for it. In order to answer this, it is instructive to compare how we conduct ourselves in the physical world with how we act with regard to spiritual matters.

If a person is aware that a poisonous substance may be present in the food that he intends to eat he would be extremely careful to avoid any remote possibility of consuming the poison. This is because he is well aware of the dire consequences of eating poison. Just as there are natural consequences to our actions in the physical world, there are also natural consequences to actions in the spiritual world. Therefore, a person who is faced with the possibility of eating food that is forbidden, such as chelev (forbidden fats), should have the same level of care to avoid doing something that will cause him grave spiritual damage. When a person stumbles and sins inadvertently or puts himself in a position where he is in doubt as to whether he sinned, he demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to the spiritual consequences of his actions; he is not fully cognizant of the spiritual reality that negative actions inevitably have negative results.

There seem to be two main reasons as to why it is far more difficult to attain the same awareness of cause-and-effect in the spiritual world as in the physical world: Firstly, the physical world is completely tangible to us - we can easily see the results of our actions, for example, when a person eats poison, he is visibly damaged. In contrast, the spiritual world is not tangible and we cannot see the results of our actions - for example, a person is less aware of the spiritual consequences of inadvertently breaking Shabbat, because he has never visually seen them. If he could see what happens in the spiritual realm for turning a light on, forgetting that it is Shabbat, then he would surely never allow himself to commit that sin b’shogeg, inadvertently.

Giving a korban for committing such a transgression helped a person fix this flaw of not being real with spiritual consequences. He had to go through a lengthy and expensive process of paying for, and bringing a korban to Jerusalem, and go through the dramatic process of offering up the korban and seeing its blood. This process surely made it very clear that there are dramatic consequences to one’s actions.

The second reason why it is difficult to live with the awareness that there are consequences to all our actions in the spiritual world, is that we are so familiar with God’s trait‘ of being Merciful that it is easy slip into the trap of thinking that God will automatically forgive us for our sins. As a result, a person will be less fearful of the consequences of sinning. The Gemara in Chagiga observes that there is a natural yetser hara (negative inclination) to presume that there is automatic forgiveness for sinning - it states, “If the yetser hara will tell you, ‘sin and God will forgive you,’ do not listen to him.3

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto in ‘Path of the Just’ addresses this attitude at length and stresses that it is incorrect - God is a ‘Kel Emet’ (truthful God) who judges every action. God’s mercy does not contradict the concept of reward and punishment: Mercy does three things; it delays the punishment from taking place immediately giving a person a chance to repent; it causes the consequence to be handed out in smaller, more manageable doses; and it gives us the opportunity to do teshuva and thereby gain complete forgiveness. There is, nonetheless, judgment for every outcome and an awareness of this should cause a person to be far more careful from sinning4. Offering a korban also helped rectify the attitude that God is a vatran (one who forgoes poor behavior); by going through the arduous process of offering the korban, the person would see that he could not gain forgiveness without repentance

We do not have the opportunity to offer korbanot for our inadvertent sins, and as a result we do not have this essential tool to help make us aware of the reality of sin. How can we engrain this into ourselves? There are many accounts of Gedolim (Torah leaders) who saw the spiritual world as tangibly as the physical world: On one occasion, Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked to leave the shul in order to take an important phone call from another country, but he could not get to the phone because somebody was praying the Shemoneh Esrei (18 blessings) in front of the door and his ‘dalet amot’5 was blocking the exit. When asked why he would not leave for such an important and costly call, he said that there was a wall blocking him and he could not walk through a wall. For Rav Moshe, the law of ‘dalet amot’ was not some vague concept, it was a clear reality. His greatness in Torah was surely the cause of such a tangible sense of Yirat HaShem (fear of God) - it was not just that he knew all of Torah, but that he allowed it to become so much a part of him that it became so real in his mind. A person can learn Torah in an intellectual way and not let it filter into his being - that kind of learning will probably not be so effective in increasing one’s Yiray HaShem - learning with an appreciation that it is discussing reality and trying to apply it to our lives will hopefully enable a person to be more real with the spiritual world.

A second suggestion is that of Rav Yisrael Salanter - that if a person wants to develop more of a sensitivity in a certain area of law, he should learn that area in depth - this will naturally bring him to a much greater awareness of his actions in that area. For example, whenever Rav Yisrael would find himself in a situation that could lead to yichud6, seclusion, he would learn the topic of yichud in great depth, in this way assuring himself that he would maintain constant awareness of any possibility of yichud. One particular area where this principle is very important is that of lashon hara (negative speech): There is such a constant challenge to speak lashon hara that without learning its laws it is extremely difficult to avoid the numerous pitfalls that arise. By learning the laws, as well as knowing what constitutes forbidden speech, a person will develop a far greater sensitivity in his speech.

We do not have the gift of korbanot anymore, but the lessons that we learn from them can help us develop a strong sense of yirat HaShem that can prevent us from the damage of sinning.


1. Vayikra, 5:17.

2. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvo 128. Also see Seforno, Vayikra, 15:17.

3. Chagiga, 16a.

4. Mesillas Yesharim, Ch.4, p.41-2..

5. There is a law that when a person is praying the Shemoneh Esrei no one is allowed to walk in front of him within 4 amot – one of the reasons for this law is that the Divine Presence is present when during this exalted prayer.

6. This is the prohibition of being alone with a member of the opposite gender.


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