To Thine Own Torah Self Be True1
Many find the broader lesson of chatas shocking. We are used to invoking the
mantra “I didn’t do it on purpose! I didn’t mean to do that!” to free
ourselves from guilt. The chatas/ sin-offering proclaims that we are wrong,
that we have missed the Torah’s mark in a major way. Intention is not the
only yardstick of moral failing. The Torah holds us accountable as well for
what we do not intend – for oversights that could have been avoided had we
cared enough not to lose sight for a moment of the importance of the duties
with which He entrusted to us.
An unstated elitism, however, greets us when the Torah maps its chatas
demands upon us. The first few instances of chatas do not even deal with
active transgressions, so much as improper judgment – and only by the most
special people! When the anointed Kohen or the High Court rule improperly
and regret it later, they are to bring a special chatas that fits their
role. Only after they, the highest spiritual authorities are considered,
does the Torah tell us about the more common chatas – the one brought by
ordinary people. They, however, only need to bring this korban for an active
discretion – only when they have done something, violated some precept. We
get the impression that Hashem concerns Himself, so to speak, with the inner
life of only the people who lead the spiritual charge. For everyone but the
superstars, what they think does not matter so much, as long as that thought
does not morph into illicit action.
The korban olah ve-yored strikingly disabuses us of this notion. The inner
life of the common man are incredibly important. Moreover, those private
thoughts are very much His concern, kivayachol.
How else could we make sense of this grouping of three seemingly unrelated
transgressions? Why their own, special protocol? Why here – and nowhere else
– does the Torah create ways for everyone to bring this korban, regardless
of how rich or poor they are, going so far as to describe three completely
different forms of the korban, depending on a person’s material well-being?
Why are those who transgress these three sins described as ashem/ desolate?
The common thread that unites all three transgressions is Truth, and its
place in the inner life of the everyday person. Each of the three
transgressions which necessitate a korban olah ve-yored shows that the truth
of a core value has been compromised. These truths are critical to turning a
soul into a Jewish personality according to the Torah’s expectations.
The first of the three deals with Man in the context of greater society.
Hashem makes many demands on us as individuals to share our energies and
talents with the larger community. When we fail to do our share, we sin not
only to our fellow citizens, but to Him, as the ultimate guarantor of the
Torah society. Upholding justice is the most significant of the social
obligations. When a person denies his knowledge of evidence relevant to a
lawsuit, he harms his fellow Man, he sins against G-d, and he shows that he
has lost his grasp of an essential truth about his place in the community of
men. The Torah allows each and every individual to approach his friend (even
without the official court order that we call a summons), and demand that he
testify on his behalf. When a person then denies his knowledge, and asserts
this in court, he must bring an olah ve-yored. Denial of truth needed in
service of Justice is a denial of a greater truth about Man’s obligation
towards others in general, and to uphold justice in particular. There simply
is no way that Justice can prevail without everyone recognizing that they
must be prepared at all times to make their individual contribution to the
The second transgression of the three seems to deal with a violation of the
sanctity of the Mikdosh, but contains a subtle, secondary error. A person
becomes tameh, and then enters the Mikdosh inadvertently, forgetting for the
moment that he or she is tameh, or losing awareness that he has stepped into
a holy place. The consequence is the korban olah ve-yored.
Taharah/ purity, as symbolized by the Mikdosh, is a fact of life. We
experience it in the innocence of childhood, and in the exhortations of our
childhood teachers never to lose it. We spend years learning about how to
safeguard it, how to nurture it and preserve it in adulthood. We absorb the
idea that we are morally free to soar to heights of accomplishment. The
Mikdosh is the visible symbol in our midst of the striving for spiritual
achievement on the absolutely highest plane.
Tumah/ impurity is also a fact of life. We become halachically tameh when we
encounter involuntariness. To be morally free means that we are not
compelled to act. We have free will. We are not programmed by our genes,
inexorably shaped by our environments, destined by the motions of the stars.
Yet, from time to time we face what seems to us to be stunning evidence of
the contrary. There is so much that we do not control! We are not even fully
in charge of our own bodies, the part of the material world necessarily
closest to us. When we experience some sort of involuntary discharge – and
all the more so when we come in contact with the Death, the most feared
involuntary experience! – the Torah calls us tameh. It has us perform some
ritual to stop a slide on a slippery slope. Impressed with our lack of
freedom in regard to physical phenomena, we could consciously or
unconsciously assume that the same is true of moral and spiritual choices.
Our recovery from tumah always reasserts the truth of moral freedom. Tumah
is indeed part of life, but it can be experienced without our allowing it to
become universal and the only fact of life.
Particularly dangerous is blending the realms of tumah and taharah. We can
and must deal with both – but they must each take their separate place, and
receive their individual attention. The person who is tameh who enters the
Mikdosh because he forgets his tumah, or forgets that he has entered the
place that forever teaches the gifts of taharah, has combined polar
opposites. He has undervalued the truth of moral freedom. This, too, is a
sin against G-d, and something that concerns Him even in the most
The last of the three olah ve-yored transgressions concerns the truth of
inner thought itself. A person swears falsely, either about what he knows
not to be true, or by failing to live up to a commitment he has made through
an oath. He must bring an olah ve-yored offering.
Speech is thought, externalized. It is a product at the same time of human
will to express some thought. An oath is speech that has been linked to the
name of G-d. Every oath, whether it explicitly mentions Hashem or not, still
invokes G-d. An oath proclaims, “G-d Himself will attest that what I am
saying is true!”
Now if an oath impacted the interests of another person, the false oath
would cause harm to the other, as will as cheapen Hashem’s Name, by
comparing His existence with a blatant untruth. The transgression here,
however, applies even where there is no other interested party. The person
swears regarding something that concerns him alone.
This, however, is the point. Your inner life, each small thought you think,
is known to Him. He does not wish you to trivialize thought and will. When
you move casual thought to the level of spoken declaration (and, by using an
oath, call upon Him as a guarantor), you had better be true to “thine own
self.” The strength of the sense of truth within Man’s mind – his thought
and his will - is very much a concern of Hashem.
The olah ve-yored, then, sends a strong message about the integrity of every
person that would like to call himself “Jew.” We can transgress not only by
what we do, but through the ill-formed and misshapen ideas that swirl around
our heads. Those, too, along with our actions, determine what we actually
are in the most profound sense.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 5:13
2. Vayikra 5:2,3