If the religious significance of the sacrificial order, in and of itself, is difficult for most moderns to fathom, the importance of the Korban Hatat or sin offering is even more elusive:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Should a person offend errantly (bishegagah) in regard to any of the Lord’s commands that should not be done and he do one of these… he shall bring forward for his offence… (Leviticus 4:1-3)
The very idea of making an offering of atonement for an inadvertent action strikes us as odd. To frame the significance of this sacrifice, it is important to note that the “offence” for which this sacrifice is being offered does not necessarily imply an unintentional ethical offence but rather it could be for any unwitting violation. Such actions leave a taint on the one who commits it, warranting a sacrifice to remove the taint. (Alter)
While for the biblical mindset such an offence “polluted” the offender and needed to be atoned for in order to be cleansed, the rabbinic sages struggled to discern why and how an inadvertent action might taint a person. The following midrash presents one attempt to answer this question:
‘Should a person offend errantly’ – Concerning such an individual, Scripture says: ‘A person without knowledge is surely not good; and one who hastens with the feet is a sinner.’(Proverbs 19:2) [The midrash goes on to expound the meaning of this verse.] One who sins even unintentionally, it is not a good sign for this person. How so? [If] there were two stores before him, one selling non-kosher meat and the other kosher meat (and the person did not know which was which], if the person entered the store which sold the non-kosher meat unknowingly [and made a purchase]. This is not good. But if he entered intentionally, then he is [truly] called a sinner. As it says: ‘one who hastened with the feet is a sinner’… (adapted from Tanhuma Vayikra 6)
This midrash asserts that someone who has inadvertently sinned has done something which is “not good” but only when the act is done intentionally is it a sin. So, why is there a reason for this person to be required to bring a “sin” offering? The midrash continues:
Our rabbis have taught: One mitzvah (good deed – commandment) leads to another, and one transgression leads to another. (Mishnah Avot 4:2) A person should not worry about a sin which he commits by mistake, but rather that an opening has been made for him to sin [again], even deliberately. Moreover, one should not rejoice over a good deed which comes to him (for fulfillment), but rather that many good deeds are going to come to him [as a result]. Therefore, if one has sinned by mistake, this is not a good sign, as stated, ‘A person without knowledge is surely not good.’ How much the more so if he sins deliberately! About him it has been stated, “and one who hastens with the feet is a sinner.” (Ibid.)
If we look at the world through the eyes of this midrash, one’s actions play an active role in determining the kind of life that a person leads. Its message is that even errant acts leave a mark and influence how we move forward. And so, positive actions lead us to perform more positive actions and sinful actions, whether intentional or unintentional, lead a person down a slippery slope to more acts of the same kind.
The role of the sacrifice in this case is to signal for the unintentional sinner the need to break this pattern before he or she becomes a sinner and to create for such an individual a clean slate so as to move on with their lives in the right direction. This religious psychology is something we might rescue from what might have seemed to be an obscure and arcane religious law from the past. In this sense it is as relevant today as it was in yesteryear.