parshat Vayikra (leviticus 4)
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz for a discussion on Clubhouse recorded on March 10th 2022. With the first mention of the Hebrew word for a mistake (Shegaga) we explore the Biblical and Rabbinic idea of the stain, intention and the etiology of sin either as a deficiency in character or treatable condition.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Today we start the book of Leviticus which deals primarily with the sacrifices. At the end of the day, the temple sacrifices fulfilled religion’s primary function. How do we deal with our shortcomings, our guilt, and yes, our joy. How do we deal with the human condition. We encounter the first mention of the Hebrew word for a mistake: Shegaga…. Which comes from the same word as Meshuga. So join us today, with all your imperfections and idiosyncrasies as we say: Oops I did it again!
Well, welcome to another week of Madlik. It is great to have you all here. It's just a few days before Purim. And we are starting the book of Vayikra, as I said in the intro, and I think we will touch upon both subjects. So let me dive in. We're going to focus on really just one verse actually one word that occurs for the first time in the Bible, we've been reading it for a bunch of months and two volumes, and we've never had this word and Leviticus for two it says, "Speak to the Israelite people, thus, when a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of God's commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them." And then of course, it goes on and describes what you do to bring a sin offering when you make a mistake. And as I said in the introduction, it says "ki techte b'shegaga", someone who sins "'Het" we've had before "B'Shegaga" means, by mistake, inadvertently, in error. And it's a Hebrew word. And it hasn't really occurred till now, which is kind of interesting. And it struck me as fascinating rabbi, what are your thoughts on Shegaga?
Adam Mintz 02:24
Well, the first thing you point out is that the idea that it hasn't appeared yet, is very interesting. It does appear later "Ki L'chol Ha'am B'Segaga", that one of the one of the ways that you kind of whitewash a sin is to say that it wasn't intentional, but rather it was by accident. Now, I think that the idea of by accident, is really an interesting idea. What does it mean by accident? You know, there are different types of accidents, you know, someone who violates the Shabbat, or let's take a different example, someone who eats a Hametz; bread on on Pesach. Now, they didn't know that it was Passover. So they knew that you weren't allowed to eat meat on Pesach. But they didn't know that it was Passover. That's what you call a Shegaga. It was a mistake. But you know, when I hear about that, you know what I think to myself? Silly, why didn't they know it was Pesach That was their mistake. So actually, it's a mistake, but it's an avoidable mistake. And I think we have to make a distinction between mistakes that are avoidable, and mistakes that aren't avoidable.
Geoffrey Stern 03:49
So I love the fact that you started with that verse that resonates from the Yom Kippur service. He was B'chol Ha'am Besegaga" if I recall
Adam Mintz 04:00
Its from the Kol Nidre Service
Geoffrey Stern 04:01
Yes. And in a sense, it takes this concept of "it was a mistake", as the ultimate defense. And when all is said and done when all the briefs and the arguments have been made, if all else fails, you say it was a mistake. And I get where you're coming from where, how many mistakes can you make? You forgot that you're not allowed to eat Hametz on Pesach, you forgot that it was Pesach, you forgot that you were eating. But at the end of the day, this is a very powerful arguments that we are given. And I started by talking about the human condition. And I think to a large degree, the the Bible is recognizing the human condition in have enough a board sense with all of the sacrifices that we give, let's face it, you know God doesn't need our sacrifices. But somehow people turn to religion, when bad things happen to good people when there are inadvertent circumstances, when tragedy occurs, or when they fail. And this concept of on Yom Kippur on Kol Nidrei, it says, you know, we're human at the end of the day. There's there's two verses, and I just basically looked at a concordance. For those of you who don't know what a concordance is, you can look up a biblical concordance and look at the occurrence of every word in the Bible. And that's why I felt confident in saying that this word hadn't occurred till now. And it does occur occur later in places like Ecclesiastes; Kohelet. It says, "Don't plead before the messenger that it was an error, but fear God", and that's kind of in line, the way you were talking, you shouldn't have to fall onto this crutch. But nonetheless, it does say that is the ultimate crutch where you say to God, you know, we're clay in the hands of the potter, You created us, we are imperfect. In Ecclesiastes 10. And again, the word Shegaga, is not used all that much, other than in reference to this sacrifice. It says, "There's an evil I have seen under the sun as great an error as committed by a ruler." So that somehow rulers are permitted to make mistakes. You know, we all hope that Putin wakes up one day and says, I made a mistake, I control the press, I can call this thing of victory, and walk home. And we would love if he would take advantage of that loophole. But in a sense, the Bible by giving us this sacrifice of Shegaga, by recognizing that we can commit mistakes, is making us all of those rulers and maybe this is a no a new interpretation of a kingdom of priests and a Holy nation.
Adam Mintz 06:28
I mean, I think all of that is true. And it's interesting, you say you looked at the concordance. I mean, it's it's an interesting thing, how the Torah looks at sin. You know, whenever you look at sin, you're gonna have the idea of Shegaga, because that's obviously the way you define sin is either intentional sin, or unintentional sin. What's interesting about the first two books of the Torah, is they don't really look at sin. Now, the Jews did sin when they worship the golden calf. But there was no issue there that it was Shegaga. Moshe doesn't say to God, hey, forgive the people. Because you know what? They didn't mean it. They did mean it. Right. That wasn't that wasn't a good, I wasn't a valid argument to say they didn't mean it. So I think Geoffrey, sometimes we have to take into consideration the fact that Shegaga is not always a good excuse.
Geoffrey Stern 07:58
You know, I think you're right. And I think the words that we've had till now, describe the action. So an "Averah" is when one is "over" one passes over the line. One breaks the rule. "Het has the same kind of connotation. Shegag is less involved with the action, and more involved with the intention. And that's why I think it's so fascinating because it reflects more on who we are, and what brings us to the kind of the etiology of sin. And that's why I think it's so fascinating. But you're right, it appears only here. And it appears only now that we have this institution, this vehicle that somehow enables us to deal with the sin. I want to quote on Nachmanides this verse, and he picks up on the fact that it says, If a soul shall sin in error, "nephesh ki tecta b'shegaga", and it says, Since the process of thinking is centered in the soul, and it is the soul which commits the error, Scripture mentions here "nephesh" soul, the reason for the offerings for the erring soul is that all sins even if committed, unwittingly, produce a particular stain "Mum Ba", and of course, I was reminded of Philip Roth's novel called The Human Stain. But we've kind of moved from the Act, which is the activity which is the Avera or the 'Het and the Shegaga, which is the intention and now we're talking a little bit about the outcome of sin. And I'm wondering what your thoughts are in that regard, forgetting about sinning against somebody or breaking a rule? What does it do to our soul is what I think Nachmanides brings on to the discussion table.
Adam Mintz 10:02
So that is an interesting question. And that is that sin, Nachmanides says, sin is bad for the soul, even if it's B'Shegaga. And that's why you need a sacrifice. We've got a bit all around this. But we haven't actually talked about how it comes up in our parsha. It's that something B'shegaga also requires a sacrifice. That, in a sense, is surprising. Why should something that's B'shegaga require a sacrifice? I would think actually the opposite, that if it's B'shegaga there shouldn't be a need for a sacrifice, because you didn't do it on purpose. But the answer is no, you still have to give a sacrifice, because it does something bad to the soul. That's an interesting idea. I don't know if that idea is so obvious, but that's an interesting idea.
Geoffrey Stern 11:02
But I think it raises our consciousness to a degree because if you sin on purpose, it's almost less likely that you're going to have the anguish and the psychological challenges of someone who is otherwise pure and well intentioned, who does or is forced to do, or finds themselves in extenuating circumstances. So I think you're right, it is strange, but if you think about it a little more deeply, it actually makes a lot of sense. You know, there are many verses and rules that we've come across already, that say, if you break the Sabbath, here's your punishment, you get the lashes, you know, whether you've ever repented or not, is another question, maybe you're even forced to bring a sacrifice. But it seems to me the real anguish is that middle market of people who find themselves in extenuating circumstances, who have a very high code of conduct, but then it comes to a family member that they had to help, or it comes to providing food or saving themselves, and you can't do it all. And that is the area to me of shegaga and it can make you crazy, and that's where Meshuga comes from.
Adam Mintz 12:25
That's funny, because we need clarity, things need to be clear, they either are or they aren't, the minute the minute, you're not quite sure, then you get crazy
Geoffrey Stern 12:37
And this this sense of the stain of sin. So yeah, you know, you could kind of think in terms of the easy stuff. So if you eat non kosher food, and you believe that non kosher food almost creates a filter it dulls the soul. So yeah, you can go on a diet, you can purge, you can say, I'm not going to eat that non kosher food anymore. But maybe the residue is there. It's like, you know, smoking that pack of cigarettes or being exposed to a virus or a toxin, it has an effect, whether you wanted it or not. And that also is part of the anguish, even if you are 100% well intentioned. And again, it back gets back to when when bad things happen to good people, we always think of that in sense of, they get punished, or they lose their money or their house burns down. But what happens if that bad Is these the circumstances that force them to to do things against their moral code? There, you bring up something else? And that is, what does it mean to sin? Is to sin to violate a ritual? Or is to sin to violate a moral code? Or both? When it says shegaga, have you violated a moral code? Or have you just violated the Shabbat? And and to pick up on your original example of eating the Hametz on Pesach? And maybe not knowing it's also the sin of ignorance enters into it as well. But I mean, from a technical point of view, the the sacrifice of the shegaga is brought what, by volition, or is it assigned? How does that all work?
Adam Mintz 14:33
How do you define whether it's a Shegaga? The court actually has to define whether it's a shegaga and a lot of it has to do with your own admission. Because again, you eat hametz on Pesach, but you say it's a shegaga, because I forgot it was Pesach. Now, that's really in your own head. You could be lying, but the Torah seems to take your word for it. Isn't that interesting? I didn't think of that ,bBut isn't that interesting?
Geoffrey Stern 15:04
Absolutely. And that's where the intentionality comes up. So there's a karban hatat, which is a sin offering. And then there's the one that we're talking about, which is for a mistake or an unintentional.
Adam Mintz 15:17
Now, there are a lot of different mistakes in this week's portion, there's a mistake of the individual, there's a mistake of the Nasi of the head of the people. There's a mistake of the Cohen Gadol, there are a lot of different kinds of mistakes. Not all mistakes are the same. Now, that is super interesting. We also understand that. You know, if the President makes a mistake, that's different than an average person making a mistake. Think about Ukraine, think about the pressure on President Zelinsky. Right. I mean, if he were to make a mistake, that would have catastrophic, consequences. But a regular person makes a mistake. It's much less catastrophic. So there are different kinds of sacrifices, depending on what the mistake is.
Geoffrey Stern 16:03
So, you know, I come back to looking at the institution of the temple and looking at the institution of the sacrifices in a whole new way. Looking at them almost from the perspective of a psychoanalyst, where, this is where people come to deal with the different issues that they've encountered. Some are forced to come some come of their own. And that I think, is fascinating to me, because many people find the whole book of Vayikra, of Leviticus as a nonstarter. It's so far removed from us, it's so remote from the world that we live in. So that's that's kind of an insight I walked away a little bit with as I started focusing on this one concept of Shegaga. But But I would like to move forward a little bit in terms of this dynamic between; is it better not to have ever sinned not to have what Nachmanidis has called the stain of sin, or this other concept that is so part and parcel of Judaism which is to tshuva, which is returning. And the Gemara in Berakot 34b relates as follows. "That Rabbi a Abbahu holds that penitentes are superior to the righteous as rabbi or Abbahu said in the place where penitent stand, even the fully fledged righteous do not stand. B'makom she'baale teshuva omdin tzadikim gemurim aynom omdim" It's a radical statement and he brings a verse to prove that it's true, because it says "Peace Peace upon him who is far and for him who is near" (Isaiah 57: 19) "Peace in greeting is extended first to the one who is far the ba'al Teshuvah, the penitent and only thereafter is peace extended to him who is near; the full fledge righteious.. So this really hits on their head, this concept of the stain of sin. And according to this one rabbi rabbi Abbahu , it would almost be you know, if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. If you've lived a life where you might have failed, but you've done Teshuva, you've come back. Even the most righteous pietic person who's never encountered any sin can stand in your fur amos.
Adam Mintz 18:39
So that of course is a very, very famous Gemara. I always wondered about that Gemara does that Gemara mean that we should all try to sin. Because if we sin and then we do tshuva, then we repent, then we're in a higher level than the person who never sins. It can't mean that. It just can't mean that. It means you know, it's it's kind of written as a way to make the person who's the penitent feel better, that they're on a higher level. But I can't believe that they really think that if you're perfect, that you're on a lower level, I'll just tell you, just talking about the idea of sinning. There's a very, very famous Midrash that talks about perfect people. And it says that there were only four perfect people in history, only four perfect people. Benjamin was the brother of Joseph Amram, who was the father of Moshe Yishai, who was the father of King David and Kilav who was the son of King David. Now that's an interesting Midrash to begin with. Because what you see is that great people can never be perfect But great people need to be connected to perfection. So Moses, his father was perfect. Moses had to know perfection. But Moses himself couldn't be perfect. David was connected to perfection, his father was perfect, but he himself couldn't be perfect. So the idea is more a statement of reality. Nobody is perfect. And therefore you should know that where the penitent sits, that's the highest level, I think that's an important thing to keep in mind when you quote that Gemara.
Geoffrey Stern 20:33
So my take from what you just said, is that, you know, we can talk about who is far who is near, but for having peace, and it does say peace, peace, you need both, you need the benchmark, and then you need the one who might stray and in return, so to speak. You know, you said that it can't possibly be the golden rule that you sinned first, then you repent, I believe it was St. Augustine who once uttered his famous "insincere prayer", "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." And so I think he nodded. He nodded to that, which is the experience of the world. And again, that talks to the different stages of life, and that maybe we do need to go through the stages. So you said that you thought this Berachot Talmud was written to assuage the guilt or the bad feeling of the repentant. And this kind of gives you a motivation, where somebody says, I'm so down in the hole, how can I ever, you know, make my way back up? And then you bring Abuhuhu's whose opinion and you say, no, no, no, you're going to be right next to the pearly gates so to speak, because God loves penitents. There was a great Hasidic rabbi, whose job in life was not make people feel comfortable. He was the Kutzke Rebbe and he was known for saying things that were very harsh and abrasive. The Kutzke Rebbe was asked, so why can't that Tzadik Gomer stand in the four cubics of the ba'al Teshuva? The Kutzke Rebbe said, "because it stinks too much". And, and he was getting back to this concept of the stain of sin, that we can give all these consoling words. But ultimately, you know, at the end of our lives, we're battered we're torn and yes, we are maimed by some of the the moral failings that we've had in the mistakes that we've made. And I just love this Talmud because it engenders this kind of conversation. And it does have you know, two totally different aspects that you could read into it. But again, it focuses on the stain of sin, which I would like to call the the Human Stain and I love it for that.
Adam Mintz 23:14
That's a great Kotzke. I didn't know that Kotzke, but that Kotzke is what I'm saying. He's known for turning everything on its head. So that that Talmud from Berakot suggests that the Ba'al Teshuva is on a higher level. And the Kotzke kind of cynically says can be right. That's not what it means and reinterprets it, so that's nice. I like that Kotzke. I'm gonna use that Kotzke.
Geoffrey Stern 23:43
I'm happy. So so another source and another concept in Judaism and especially in Rabbinic Judaism is "Onus Rachmana patrei" That if you are forced to do something, if someone holds a gun to your head, or Let's call a spade a spade, the worst possible situation a rape, a sin is committed on her. And so, Robbie Bahama said that the Merciful One exempts a victim of circumstance beyond his or her control for punishment, as it is said with regard to a betroth woman who is raped. So actually the use case the primary case, that is brought for that is the one of rape and that's an important situation to know as long as we're talking about the stain of, of sin, because there are many places in the Torah where whether it's the bastard child or it's whatever where we find that stain of sin and it becomes very troubling. And I think as troubling as it is, I think the the gold standard Is that ultimately? No. If it's under duress, if it's beyond your control, we give you the sacrifices, we give you all the help, but you need to know the stain isn't there.
Adam Mintz 25:14
Yes, I think that, you know, can we go back to that Nachmanides, the idea of the stain of sin? What does that mean the stain of sin? How do you understand the stain of sin?
Geoffrey Stern 25:30
I mean, the word he uses his "Moom", which literally is an imperfection. But he's talking about the soul. And it really gets to the core question, which is, is the soul of humanity, which is ultimately God given? Is it something that can be misdirected? Is it something that can be kind of bruised? But is it ultimately pure? Or can the soul itself become something that is less than holy? And I think that's that's the real issue here. He focuses over us on the fact that it says, If a soul shall sin, and he talks about this is all about the soul and ultimately, the soul can be corrupted. But I think that's that's the real question here. You know, we're all given the same soul but we're not necessarily given the same chances in life and stuff like that. And it comes down to a really basic question why they're evil people. Or they're just people that act evily, I don't know, is the soul ultimately pure? Or can the soul become stained and blemished?
Adam Mintz 26:48
Good question. So Nachmanides was a Kabbalist. And Nachmanides as a Kabbalist believe that the soul can become stained. There's a direct correlation between the two things, right, the capitalists believe in this kind of mystical view of the soul, and the soul can actually become stained. And when the soul is stained, so what do you do? You bring a karban hatat and then that unstains soul, it's like it gives the soul a shower. But you know, that's an interesting idea. Maimonides doesn't accept that. Maimonides doesn't think it has anything to do with the soul. Maimonides was a rationalist. He says you need a sacrifice. Because if you violate something, then that's a bad thing. You did something wrong, you may not have intended it, but you did it wrong. And if you do something wrong, you need to bring a sacrifice. So my Maimonides has a whole different view. He has kind of the rational legalistic view and Nachmanides has the Kabbalistic view that your soal is stained. Interesting, both are legit. I think both make a lot of sense. But you have to know they're two different arguments.
Geoffrey Stern 28:09
So I think from the Talmud, the greatest argument against Nachmanides, is given in Sota 3a by Resh Lakesh. And he says, A man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly enters him, "Eyn adam over avera ela im kein nichnas bo ruach shtut" those of you who know Hebrew, when your child starts doing silly little things in doodling, you say stop with that "Shtuyot" stop that silliness. And I think what he's saying is that at the end of the day, we're all pure. And if we sin, some craziness, ..... we get back to this Meshuga aspect of Shogeg. And this is a very important argument. For instance, here's where the rubber hits the road. In Israel today. I'm knowledgeable in an organization that's fighting drug addiction. And till today in the Israeli healthcare system, drug addiction is looked at as a shortcoming in character and not a medical condition that can be cured. And it comes down to this. Is it a Shetuyot is it something where something happened to this person, Thank God I'm not sitting in his shoes or haven't been in his situation, and I just have to cure it. I have to take away that Shetyot. I have to take the way that that stain and I think it's a it's a beautiful approach with regard to drug addiction. I think it's a driving mandate that we have to have. We can't look at certain people as sinners that have failed. We have to look at them as brothers and sisters who need our help and need to be given the same chances that we have,
Adam Mintz 30:02
I think that's beautiful. I mean, that's actually a nice way to kind of pull it around. And that is you know, nichnas bo ruach shtut" That's interesting. You've connected it to Shetuyot to silliness. I always thought nichnas bo ruach shtut is not silliness but stupidity. Right, you're being stupid. to sin is to be stupid. It's nuanced. But there's a little bit of a difference between being silly and being stupid. You don't say to your kids, you're stupid. You say you're being silly. But you know, but nichnas bo ruach shtut" is more critical than that. It says you're being stupid,
Geoffrey Stern 30:45
Or ignorant. But I hear what you're saying.
Adam Mintz 30:48
I'm saying all these words are interesting. But I think they're interesting, because each one of them should right Geoffrey's a little different.
Geoffrey Stern 30:54
Yep, they are nuanced. So I promised that we would tie this into Purim. And here's where it ties into poram. Esther is going to save the Jews. But in order to save the Jews, she has to sin. She has to, for the first time of her own volition, lie with the king. And that means two things. The rabbi's learn as she goes to Mordechai and says I want you to assemble all the Jews who live in to Shushan and fast on my behalf do not eat or drink. She says Then I shall go to the king through it is contrary to the law. And if I perish, I perish. Ka'asher Avadati Avadati, the most chilling words to my mind in the whole Purim story, and the rabbi's interpret that to mean since I am going now by my own volition, I'm not being forced to lie with this king. And since I am married to Mordechai, I will now not be able to return to Mordechai. So they say Why does it say Avadati twice the first time is because I'm going to sin against God. And the second is because the stain of what I'm going to do is going to impact my life. We don't need to even comment on it. The profundity the power of that statement drives home I think some of the issues that we've been, I wouldn't say playing with but dealing with this evening.
Adam Mintz 32:26
That's really nice. That's a beautiful way to end it. I wish everybody a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Purim. I will look forward to seeing you next week which will be right after Purim which will be super nice,
Geoffrey Stern 32:37
Shabbat Shalom Hag Samayach, let all our bad turn to good wishing you all well.
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