Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky
Why Bring a Korban? It Wasn't My Fault
Many of the karbanos mentioned in Parshas Vayikra are brought as a response to sin. The korban chatas and various korbanos asham are linked to specific sins that were committed, and even the korban olah has the ability to atone for less severe sins. Most sins that require atonement are committed unintentionally. Why does the Torah require any atonement for unintentional sins? This question is not only relevant in the realm of korbanos, as the mitzvah of teshuva applies for such sins as well. Why are we held responsible for things that we didn't intend to do?
There are three important lessons we can derive from our obligation to address even unintentional actions. A person who kills unintentionally must run to an ir miklat - a city of refuge. This is not only to protect him from the relatives of the victim but also serves as an atonement for the act of murder he committed, albeit unintentionally. The Torah graphically illustrates the model scenario of such an act: a person is chopping wood in the forest and the loose blade of his tool flies off and hits someone. In this example the Torah is focusing our attention on the fact that this tragedy may have been avoided had the woodsman been more careful. More generally, in the realm of Torah prohibitions we are instructed to enact safeguards lest we succumb to sin. If such safeguards are not adhered to, we are more likely to sin both intentionally and unintentionally. Although we may not technically be at fault for an unintentional sin, it too must be atoned for since we are responsible for our insufficient caution with respect to our mitzvah observance.
In Parshas Vayera, Hashem is ready to punish Avimelech for taking Sara, whereupon he protests that he is innocent as he didn't know that she was a married woman. Chazal comment that although Avimelech was telling the truth, he was still responsible for his actions. Avimelech was the leader of a society which did not adhere to basic standards of modesty. He sanctioned the behavior of those who would investigate immediately as to the status of any woman who entered his kingdom. Although there was no direct connection between the atmosphere of immodesty that prevailed and the specific issue of Sara, Avimelech was held responsible for condoning behavior that was conducive to sin. If our behavior results in sin, even if not intended, it should serve as a wake up call that perhaps we are living a lifestyle which is not conducive to the meticulous observance of mitzvos.
There is another lesson we can learn from the need for korbanos of atonement. In the physical world, there are consequences of our actions whether performed willingly or otherwise. One who consumed poison unknowingly must still be treated for its effects. Similarly, sin is spiritual poison which has negative consequences for our spiritual health. The need to offer a korban alerts us to the serious nature of sin and the negative impact it has on us. Teshuva and korbanos are necessary as antidotes to the self-inflicted damage we have caused unknowingly.
The Torah spends a lot of time addressing the different unintentional sins that warrant various korbanos. These are not just technical details relevant only when there was a Beis Hamikdash. Rather, these halachos require us to examine our actions. Are there specific precautions we can take to prevent these occurrences in the future? Can we create an atmosphere and lifestyle that is less likely to result in actions that require atonement? Do we understand the consequences of our actions? As we offer a korban and return to Hashem these are the critical questions we must ask ourselves.