By Nick Gendler
And so we arrive at the third book of the Torah, originally known as The Book of the Priests for its concern with the rituals that bring us all, not just the Cohanim, closer to God.
The early chapters are particularly administrative – not an easy read for someone who prefers a visual narrative. (Though for comic relief, one phrase that pops up frequently throughout these dour chapters evokes an image of the rock group Deep Purple, which appears in my mind’s eye every time the phrase “smoke on the altar” shows up in the translation!)
Comic relief aside, on the surface these chapters appear to be repetitive and irrelevant. But as I explored further I was struck by the section pertaining to the guilt offering. This sacrifice was, and continues to be, profoundly important in helping us to understand what it means to be a moral person. Moreover, it describes the presence of the divine in a way that I find particularly accessible.
The key word is “trespass”.
If anyone sin and commit a trespass against the Lord and deal falsely with his neighbour in a matter of deposit, or of pledge, or of robbery, or have oppressed his neighbour or have found that which was lost and deal falsely therein, and swear to a lie… (Lev. 5: 21-22)
Rabbi Akiva, whose thoughts make up a significant proportion of Sifra, the Midrash to Vayikra, asks:
What does the Torah mean by saying: “To commit a trespass against the Lord?” When …two parties to any transaction conduct their business through deeds and witnesses, a repudiation of obligations constitutes a repudiation of the witnesses and the deed. But he who deposits something with his neighbour, does not want a soul to know about it, other than the Third Party between them. When he repudiates his obligation he repudiates the Third Party, i.e., God.
To paraphrase the 19th-century German commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch, these transgressions against another person are considered a trespass against God because God is witness to all transactions between two people.
Specifically, Hirsch explains: “The Jew attests to the honesty of his conduct by his priestly role of nearness to his God.” In other words, when a Jew deals falsely with another they dishonestly invoke God as witness to their innocence, thereby trespassing against the name of God.
The psychiatrist and social anthropologist Simon Dein suggests in his 2013 paper “The Origins of Jewish Guilt: Psychological, Theological, and Cultural Perspectives” that guilt is the feelings of culpability and remorse that result from a moral violation. Feelings of guilt signify alienation from God.
God, in these instances, is our conscience. I might deal falsely with another person and neither that person nor any other would know, but I will know; that is, my conscience, the third party that is God within me, challenging me to deal honestly with my neighbour. Guilt is a sense of alienation from my own morality. It’s when I know I am not being true to myself.
Guilt is therefore a fitting way to begin the Book of the Priests, bringing us, as it does, to the very heart of our relationship with ourselves and with God.