Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Vayikra: Making Two Wrongs Right

In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Bart makes an appearance on Krusty’s TV show. Things go badly. He flubs his lines and then physically stumbles against part of the set – causing the entire set and the props to collapse around him. He has ruined everything. The camera and crowd is stunned into silence. With all eyes on him, Bart blurts out: “I didn’t do it.”

Taking a moment to absorb the absurdity of Bart’s preposterous plea of innocence, the audience then roars in uncontrollable laughter – and Bart Simpson becomes an instant television sensation.

Clearly, young Bart Simpson failed to acknowledge his own role in his accident. He does not accept blame.

Accepting Responsibility

This example stands in stark contrast with the example given to us in this week’s parasha. The Torah portion examines five categories of sacrifice. Two of these deal with obtaining forgiveness for wrongs we have committed: Hattat & Ashampurification and reparation offerings.

Whether the error is committed by the High Priest, the community itself, community leaders, or individuals, the Torah explains what measures are to be taken to atone for those errors. But in all these cases, the people themselves realize what they have done.

In every case, the person or people acknowledge their fault.

Interestingly enough, the Torah begins its list of examples with the High Priest. It starts right at the top. The second example cites an unwitting error by the whole community of Israel. The third example is by a community leader. The fourth, by any individual. In each case, a detailed account is given of what measures are to be taken to make up for that error. And in each case, without any additional qualification, the Torah says:

and they/he shall be forgiven.

Leviticus 4:20,26,31,35
Leviticus 5:10,13,16,26

We associate atonement and forgiveness with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. However, the Torah asks us to examine ourselves throughout the year. Forgiveness isn’t just for Yom Kippur.

God is compassionate and generous. We don’t have to wait for that one day in a year to make up for something we’ve done wrong. But it requires that we call ourselves out on our own mistakes. It requires that we recognize our own mistakes.

One Wrong = Two Wrongs

In the closing verses of Parashat Vayikra, we learn that if an individual commits a wrong to another, that person must make restitution to the one who was wronged and ALSO make a sacrifice to God. In committing one wrong, he/she has actually committed two wrongs: one against a fellow human being and one against God.

To make up for it, to atone, he/she must do the right thing vis à vis the person who was wronged. And only then, only once that has happened can he/she seek to make it up to God. And, at that point, once God has been sought out, venislach lo” – “he shall be forgiven”. (Leviticus 5:20-26)

It’s a beautiful concept and it’s no trivial matter. The Torah does not say, “he might be forgiven.” The Torah does not say, “God will continue to evaluate the individual’s merit and pass judgment at some later date”. No, it says “he shall be forgiven”. It’s final. The error is to be forgiven and, if the person who was wronged has been paid back and if God has then forgiven the individual, then who are we to continue to point to that person and look at him as forever bearing guilt? No, “he shall be forgiven”.

Now, the great sin described in the accompanying haftarah (the regular one; not the one for Shabbat HaChodesh) is idol worship. The prophet Isaiah describes how members of the community have prayed to false gods, saying:

He also makes a god of it and worships it, fashions it and bows down to it!

Isaiah 44:15

But then he quotes God’s words:

Remember these things, O Jacob, for you, O Israel, are My servant:
I fashioned you, you are My servant.

Isaiah 44:21

While human beings fashion idols with their own hands then pray to them, Isaiah reminds us that it is God who fashions us. The craftsman does not worship his handiwork. It is the other way around; the handiwork, us, are to worship the Craftsman, God.

Now listen to Isaiah’s next lines, as he quotes God once again:

I wipe away your sins like a cloud, your transgressions like mist –

Come back to Me, for I redeem you.

Isaiah 44:22

The Path to Forgiveness

Just as in this week’s parasha, there is a path to forgiveness, there is a path to God. And, actually, it isn’t very complicated.

Bart Simpson gets it all wrong. He unwittingly causes everything to fall apart and then, despite the presence of an immeasurable number of witnesses, claims that he didn’t do it. He’s got it all wrong. It all begins with the words, “I did it; it’s my fault.”

Once we understand our own error, our own fault, the path to forgiveness is simple. For if we acknowledge our errors, witting or unwitting ones, and if we then turn to God, God will be waiting.

The prophet Isaiah tells us:

God… has glorified Himself – THROUGH ISRAEL.

Isaiah 44:23

That power of forgiveness, that way back, that ability to right a wrong, is yet another example of how we are holy – of how God is manifest through us.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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