Posted by: RaeAn | 19 March 2012

Drash: Vayikra

Here’s the drash (mini-sermon of sorts) that I gave this morning on this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra. (I know, this is a totally random update after so long, but you can deal with it. Life is busy in LA.)



As I perused Vayikra over and over again this week, one concept kept popping out to me, the idea of sinning unwittingly – and, specifically, the fact that one’s guilt or innocence can rely on the unwitting (or “witting”) nature of the act in question. If you know you’re committing a sin, then the guilt is obvious. But if you, say, enter the Temple after accidentally brushing against a pork vendor in the marketplace, then it seems a bit more questionable. (According to our text, though, you’d still be guilty in that case.) Also, the type of sacrifice you’d have to offer to make up for a transgression can rely on whether you were aware of the situation that led to the slip-up.

This idea always gives me a bit of a philosophical twitch: if our knowledge plays into it, then God must have some opinion on our mental processes, and I was always taught in Hebrew school that in Judaism, we believe God cares about our actions, not our thoughts.

So I looked around, and it turns out there’s a parallel situation in Deuteronomy. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah  wrote about unwitting mitzvot: Deut. 24:19 mandates that, if a farmer drops a sheaf while harvesting the field, he leave it where it is so the stranger, widow, or orphan may pick it up. This is part of the basic social responsibility system which the Torah would have us set up in our communities. Tradition tells us that God has a special blessing for this farmer who has unwittingly fed the hungry around him, but the farmer is unaware that he has performed a mitzvah. If he had been trying to perform the mitzvah, then he couldn’t have “forgotten” the sheaf; if he notices he dropped it and leaves it on purpose in keeping with the law, then he might be blessed, or he might not, there’s no guarantee. However, if he has no awareness of his mitzvah, then he surely receives a Divine blessing.

And so here, again, it seems like God cares what we think. Intention is a part of the equation after all. It turns out my teachers weren’t entirely wrong, though. God does care about our thoughts – but He or She seems to care about our actions more. Among several of the accidental transgressions in Vayikra, a chunk of them come with punishment regardless of whether the person knew they were sinning or not; as I mentioned before, walking into the Temple with a smear of pork sauce on your tunic still incurs a punishment even though you were too busy keeping your doves in the cage to notice there even was a treif vendor in the Jerusalem marketplace. In the end, bringing the profane into the holiest of holy spaces is unacceptable even with no malintent behind the act. However, since you didn’t know the pork vendor was there, you can get off with a grain sacrifice instead of a blood one. This time.

The moral of the story is to be aware of your actions, because they speak loudest; your intentions will only be a secondary consideration. This, of course, applies far more broadly than just in relation to unintentionally wearing bacon oil into the Temple. In relationships, in the workplace, in school, or in a dozen other parts of life, you may be able to back-pedal from a screw-up when you explain your intentions, but to some extent, the damage may have already been done. The ideal situation, it seems, is to be aware of your actions and whether they align with your intentions in the first place – and your daily dose of HUC reflection work ought to be a good start.

Shavua tov.


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