Parashat Vayikra: Ritualizing Sin

by April Akiva, MAJE

 Growing up I was taught to ward off the “evil eye” by giving myself or someone the “spits” if I made a compliment.  Lighting Shabbat candles signified peace and the beginning of rest each Friday night in my family; the evening could not be complete without singing a special Shabbat song.  Daniel’s grandmother adorned our new home with a mirror, salt, and a knife—all items believed to keep a “safe” and “secure” home.  As a people of tradition, and sometimes superstition, we crave ritual to hold on to in many instances of our lives.  All the more so might we hold on to ritual in the face of negative actions or events.  Upon hearing about the death of a loved one we tear our clothes; when being in touch with a dead body or cemetery we wash our hands.  We recite Mi Sheberach for a sick friend and may even assist him in changing his name if he takes a turn-for-the-worse. Ritual, indeed, permeates the fabric of existence for Jews.
Parashat Vayikra, the first portion of Leviticus details various types of sacrifices.   The zevach shelamim, or “sacrifice of well-being” is taken from the herd and is cut up so that its entrails and fat are offered at the altar.  We learn that when a person accidentally fails to fulfill God’s commandments, a chatat, or “sin offering,” is to be made.  There are also offerings suggested if the head of a tribe sins.  Furthermore, if one deals dishonestly with another in the matter of a loan or a pledge, through robbery or fraud, by finding something lost and lying about it, or by swearing falsely, one must first restore or repay that which has been wrongly taken, along with a fifth of its value.  Afterwards one may offer a ram without blemish as a “guilt offering.”
The offerings listed in the parashah are highly detailed, though irrelevant to modern times, when sacrifices are no longer used.  If anything, Jews of a modern mindset might find the whole system as meaningless and cruel to animals.  What endures from Vayikra is the idea that our choices are followed by action and repercussions.  When we make a choice there is a consequence and when that choice is negative a part of us seeks to rectify the situation in a meaningful way. For those of us whose lives revolve around ritual we sometimes seek other ways to signify what has conspired in order to be able to move forward.  Perhaps we go to mikveh to “purify” ourselves after a transgression.  We might attend services at a house of worship or share our feelings in a journal.  While it does not dismiss the misdeed, ritual helps us recognize a moment so that we are able to move on with life.

How do you use ritual to signify moments in your life, especially those that are not so positive?

One Response to Parashat Vayikra: Ritualizing Sin

  1. john whates March 12, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    I suspect I read the monthly flyer more than my wife’s since she grew up with this whereas I grew up with a different set of flyers…though of rather similar topics…

    Kindness, mercy, forgiveness, love, the message is the same…

    I really enjoy them…reminds me of my youth…though I suspect my family considers me John the Apostate…like Julian.