By Ilana Kurshan
The Blind Leading the Lame
Parashat Vayikra begins the Torah’s discussion of sacrificial law. In introducing the various sacrifices, the Torah refers to what happens “when adam [any “person”] presents an offering of cattle to the Lord” (Lev. 1:2). In contrast, one who brings a sin offering or a guilt offering is described as a nefesh, a “soul” (5:1). Why is a person who brings the sin or guilt offering not referred to also as an adam, “person”? The midrash, picking up on this variation in language, offers a parable that sheds light on the nature of sin and the way we respond to our own acts of wrongdoing:
[It is like] a king who had an orchard with beautiful figs. He set two guards in it, one lame and one blind. He said to them, “Guard the figs”, and he left them there and went on his way. The lame man said to the blind man: “I see beautiful figs.” The blind man said: “Bring them here, and we’ll eat them.” The lame man said: “But I can’t walk.” The blind man said: “And I can’t see.” What did they do? The lame man rode astride the blind man and they took the figs and ate them…The king came and said: “Where are the figs?” The blind man said: “Do I see?” The lame man said: “Can I walk?” The wise king placed the lame man astride the blind one and judged them as one. (Leviticus Rabba 4:5)
The midrash explains that in the world to come the soul and body will blame one another for the individual’s sins, but God will judge them as one. The midrash takes us back to the beginning of time, when Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves and tried to cast blame elsewhere for the fruit they ate; and it also looks forward to the end of time, when human beings will be held accountable for their actions.
And yet the midrash does not entirely explain the Torah’s language. According to the parable, it is not just the soul that is blamed, since both the body and soul incriminate one another. Perhaps the Torah uses the term nefesh rather than adam to explain that while it takes both body and soul to sin, the individual who has committed a sin will find himself with body and soul at odds with one another, blaming each other for the wrongdoing. The sinner, having sinned, becomes a fragmented individual, caught up in an internal struggle. Such an individual cannot be an adam, a whole person.
If so, then we might consider the sh’lamim – the well-being/peace offering – as the opposite of the sin and guilt offerings. The word sh’lamim comes from the Hebrew words shalom and shalem, meaning peace and wholeness. The sh’lamim sacrifice, once offered, is shared by the donors and priests. Whilst the individual who has sinned is caught up in an inner conflict, the individual who is whole and has achieved inner peace can reach out and share with others.
Instead of harnessing the blind to the lame, may we harness our eyes and our legs – to seek out goodness and justice and run after them. May we strive to live integrated lives, united in body and soul, and may we be like the sons of Aaron who not only offered sacrifices in the Temple, but also loved peace and pursued it.
Ilana Kurshan is based in Jerusalem. She is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, a memoir about Talmud study forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press.