Sin, Sacrifices, and Atonement


The Dimensions of Sin 

by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z'l

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

Parshat Vayikra devotes an extended section to the chattat, the sin offering, as brought by different individuals, including the Kohen Gadol, other leaders, and various community members. The whole passage sounds strange to modern ears, not only because korbanot have not been offered for almost two millennia since the destruction of the Second Temple, but also because it is hard for us to understand the very concepts of sin and atonement as they are dealt with in the Torah.

The interesting thing to note is that the sins for which an offering had to be brought were those committed accidentally (be–shogeg), not intentionally, when the sinner had forgotten the law or some other relevant fact.

We usually think of sin as something we did on purpose, giving into temptation perhaps, or in a moment of rebellion. But this type of sin cannot be atoned for by an offering at all. For that kind of deliberate, conscious, intentional sin, the only adequate moral response is teshuvah, repentance. So, how can we make sense of the sin offering?

The answer is that there are three dimensions of wrongdoing between us and God. The first is guilt and shame. When we sin deliberately and intentionally, we know inwardly that we have done wrong. Our conscience – the voice of God within the human heart – tells us that we have done wrong.

The second dimension is that regardless of guilt and responsibility, we have objectively transgressed a boundary if we commit a sin. The word chet means to miss the mark, stray, or deviate from the proper path. We have committed an act that somehow disturbs the moral balance of the world. To take a secular example, imagine your car has a faulty speedometer. You are caught by a police officer driving at 50 miles per hour in a 40-mph zone. You tell the officer who stops you that you didn’t know. Your speedometer was only showing 40 miles per hour. The police may sympathise, but you have still broken the law, and you will still have to pay the penalty.

That is what a sin offering is. According to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, it is a penalty for carelessness. According to the Sefer HaChinuch, it is an educational and preventive measure. Deeds, in Judaism, are the way we train the mind. The fact that you have had to pay the price by making a sacrifice will make you take greater care in the future.

This brings us to the third dimension of sin: that it defiles. It leaves a stain on one’s character.

The sin offering is not about guilt but about other dimensions of transgression. One of the strange features of Western civilisation is that we tend to think about morality and spirituality as matters almost exclusively involving the mind and its motives. But our acts leave traces in the world, and even unintentional sins can leave us feeling defiled.

The law of the sin offering reminds us that we can harm others unintentionally, which can have psychological consequences. The best way to make things right is to bring a sacrifice—to do something that costs us something.

In ancient times, that took the form of a sacrifice offered on the altar at the Temple. Nowadays, the best way to do so is to give money to charity (tzedakah) or act kindly to others (chessed).

Charity and kindness are our substitutes for sacrifice, and, like the sin offering of old, they help mend what is broken in the world and our soul.