This week’s portion continues in the same vein as last week’s as it discusses different laws of the karbanos — sacrificial offerings.
“Speak to Aron and his son’s saying: ‘This is the law of the chatas (sin offering), in the place where you slaughter the olah (elevation offering), slaughter the chatas before G-d, it is most special” (Lev.6:18).
A sin offering was brought for an unintentional sin, which if done intentionally, the punishment would be Kares — spiritual cutting off. For example, if someone forgot it was Yom Kippur and ate. An elevation offering was brought for a few different reasons: Failure to perform a positive commandment (wearing tefillin), for a sin that he is unable to perform the required rectification, for example, if someone stole and is unable to return the object (it is no longer retrievable), for sinful thoughts, and at each of the three festivals when the Jews were required to come to the Temple (Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos).
The Ramban explains that the meaning of the word olah is to “come up”, to rectify sinful thoughts and ideas that come up in one’s head.
How could a person be liable for thoughts, and furthermore, what is the connection between a sin offering and an elevation offering that they were to be offered in the same place?
A person may do something by accident. He may, for example, forget that it is Shabbos and light a fire. Although he does not deserve to be punished in the normal fashion because it was an accident, nonetheless, he has done something wrong. If he would have taken Shabbos seriously, he would not have forgotten. Let us say a person sins because he is unaware that this particular act is forbidden on Shabbos, for example sewing. He is not punished, but there is something missing in his observance of Shabbos, for he should have made an effort to know the laws. Thus the need for a korban (obviously, G-d does not expect perfection from us, just our greatest effort).
The Shem Meshmuel (the Sochatover Rebbe, a chassidic Rebbe in Poland in the 19th century) explains beautifully. He says that the olah offering is slaughtered on the north side of the altar: “Slaughter it at the side of the altar, to the north, before G-d” (Ibid. 1:18). The word in Hebrew for north is tzafon. This word has the same root as matzpun — conscious. The north represents the intellect of man (as it is the highest point). The conscious mind of man controls his actions.
While a chatas is brought for lack of cognizance, an olah is brought because lack of mental focus. The sin of lack of mental focus leads to unintentional sin.
In order to understand this we must first understand our relationship to G-d and how we carry out His will, the Torah. As stated many times here, our relationship is one of love and fear, not merely one of carrying out the commandments. In order to gain this approach we must try to the best of our ability to have our actions and intent achieve synchronicity. So if for the mental and accidental sins, the rectification occurs in the same place, then also the growth and closeness to G-d occurs in these same places.
We must look at the commandments as more than physical acts and we must embrace their details and reasons behind them.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.