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Of sinners and saints (Parshat Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol)

A personal encounter with a man in prison taught him how the very act of bringing a sin-offering can transform a criminal

It seems curious that the Olah [wholly burnt] offering that represents total dedication to God and is the highest expression of complete commitment, is to be offered in the very same place in the where the transgressor brings his Chatat [sin] offering. Would it not have been more logical for there to have been two separate places for these two very separate types of sacrifices?

Remember that the very first wholly burnt offering was the lamb that Abraham brought as a substitute for Isaac, the lamb which has become for all time the symbol of consummate dedication to God. So why mix and match two such different individuals on two such different ends of the religious spectrum? And why does the verse conclude with the words “Holy of the Holy,” which seems to refer not only to the wholly burnt offering but also to the sin offering?

Perhaps this is precisely the point that the Torah is making, that the two offerings are brought in the same spot because, in essence, they are two sides of the same coin.

For many people, it is only when they descend to rock bottom that they realize the necessity of a Divine anchor. The Baal Shem Tov taught that the seed must first rot in the ground before it can begin to flower.

Shortly after my aliyah, I gave a lecture at an Israeli prison for several hundred inmates. I had prepared a talk for that week’s Torah reading, Shemot. But someone interrupted me and asked if I’d mind speaking about the previous week’s reading, Vayehi, explaining that they loved to hear about Joseph, since Joseph had also been in prison and had been freed!

Some of the prisoners had sauntered in bare-headed, very tough-looking, while others’ heads bore kippot as they adorned untucked tzitzit. The contrast was stark, but the intensity of involvement came from all camps. It was an amazing audience, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

After the class, we prayed the evening service, and I hadn’t been so moved since the previous Yom Kippur. I realized that in prison, every day must have an element of Yom Kippur, where sin and punishment are one’s daily fare.

The man leading the prayers was a Sefardi Jew who said the words with fear and trembling, his lips enunciating each syllable as if he were carving stone with his teeth. The davening must have taken more than half an hour, three times the usual length. Afterwards, I asked him where he derived his power of prayer and concentration.

He told me that one day, he returned home earlier than expected, and found his wife in bed with his best friend — with his 2-month-old baby daughter between them. Since he was employed as a guard, he always carried a gun. He couldn’t control his angry passion and meant to shoot his friend, but inadvertently killed his own child. Having been sentenced to life imprisonment, he descended into a deep depression and even attempted suicide. His wife left him, and even his parents would not visit him.

Later, a visiting Moroccan hakham lifted him out of his despair. The rabbi explained that one of God’s Attributes of Mercy is that He is “rahum”, compassionate, a term which comes from the Hebrew word “rehem”, “womb.”

A mother has no difficulty diapering her baby, accepting the one who emanated from her womb with all of its dirt. After all, the baby is an inextricable part of her. The mother even kisses the baby after she diapers it. So does the Almighty accept all of His children wherever they may be — physically and spiritually. God will always come to visit you; He will embrace and kiss you, no matter what you have done. He is the God of unconditional love, both and before after you sin.

I came to visit a prison during the week of Shemot and ended up speaking about Vayehi, but what I received from the inmate was an insight into Tzav. I learned how a prisoner’s sin offering can help him feel the deep anguish he should feel about the crime he committed, and how that very sin offering can lead to a whole new perspective about God and the world, which can literally transform sinner into saint. Perhaps this is what our Sages intended when they taught: “Where the penitent stands even the most righteous cannot stand” [Talmud, Berakhot 34b].

This is a crucial lesson of Passover, as well: Just as God redeemed a people sunken to the 49th level of spiritual impurity and brought them to freedom, so, too, must we view ourselves as being redeemable, and strive for that freedom.

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WATCH RABBI RISKIN’S VIDEO COMMENTARY TO PARSHAT TZAV: “Where should we be for Passover this year?”

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A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.

About the Author
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men's and women's institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU. (Photo credit: Chaim Snow)
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