Cantor Eyal Bitton shares a few thoughts on prayer and the parasha of the week.

Whose Fault is it Anyway?

2024-03-23 Parashat Vayikra

In the weekday Amidah, we recite “Slach lanu Avinu ki chatanu”, which means “Forgive us, our Parent, for we have sinned. Pardon us, our Ruler, for we have transgressed.” The truth is that it is easier to acknowledge collective fault than individual fault. Indeed, some of us have a very difficult time saying, “Sorry, that’s my fault.” Perhaps we’re too proud. Perhaps we have difficulty seeing our own faults.

This week’s parasha explores this very idea. It discusses categories of sacrifice. Two of these deal with obtaining forgiveness for wrongs we have committed: Hattat & Asham – purification 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 he shall be forgiven.”

I know we tend to think about atonement and forgiveness on 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 mistakes. It requires that we recognize our mistakes.

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 a sin, he has wronged another individual and wronged God. 

To make up for it, to atone, he must do the right thing vis à vis the person who was wronged. And only then, only once that has happened can he 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 today’s Haftarah 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.

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

The applicant on the insurance form gets it all wrong. He unwittingly does everything wrong and then asks the insurance company to send him a check. He’s got it all wrong. It all begins with the words, “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. And 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. It is how, as the prophet Isaiah tells us, “Adonai… has glorified Himself – THROUGH ISRAEL”.