Parashat Tzav

It’s wonderful having an office overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. When the weather is nice I sometimes skip lunch in favor of exploring the winding alleys of Jerusalem. It’s an opportunity for a bit of much needed exercise in addition to amazing people watching and window shopping.

During one of these recent lunchtime outings I noticed a shop with a new product called “Sin-B-Gone.” A kit with detailed instructions for removing all guilt and liability for both major and minor sins of all kinds.  There is a long list of sins for which the kit is effective including: “lying, cheating, robbery, fraud, trespass, swearing, failing to follow the Commandments, etc…

The large print guarantees forgiveness. The small print indicates the instructions must be followed exactly. Included in the kit were oil, cake-mix, miniature grill, wood, matches, and a detailed, step-by-step instruction booklet complete with flowchart. Always the careful shopper, I pulled out my smart phone to do some quick research. Unable to find the product reviewed by Consumer Reports or I was more than just a little skeptical and continued walking.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a magic formula for correcting our mistakes? This week’s Torah portion from Leviticus chapters 6-8, Tzav, is exactly this instruction book. The text gives an overview of the process for several different types of sacrifices or offerings. Each is a form of expiation for different forms and degrees of sins. Some are seen more as apologies, some as thanksgiving, and others as retribution or punishment.

The instructions explain in great details about preparations, slaughtering, baking, what to do with blood and other technical aspects of the process. However, I find it most interesting that we also learn that this is to be a public act in which the person must first and foremost recognize the sin and take responsibility for their actions. They do this with the priests and elders of the communities, in front of the community, as soon as they realize they have erred. The elaborate rituals provide a mechanism through which we are able come to terms with our transgressions and take symbolic action to rectify the offense.

Unlike those connected with the Temple Institute in Jerusalem dedicated to rebuilding the Temple and returning to the sacrificial cult practices of the ancient Israelites, I believe we have the power to create more meaningful rituals in line with modern attitudes and contemporary needs.

Based on my experience and a bit of online research, I would like to offer the following ways to say “I’m sorry” as alternatives to the offering of unleavened cakes, dashing blood against an alter, and sacrificing sheep, goats, pigeons or bulls.

  1. Give a hug to the person you’ve wronged.
  2. Write a note or poem apologizing. You can also list things you appreciate about them.
  3. Bake or cook something for the person you’ve hurt. This can also be a general offering for “victimless” acts and you can cook for a soup kitchen.
  4. Make a charitable donation.
  5. Most importantly – learn from you mistake!

With all of these, the real key is acknowledging mistakes and learning from them. This is the secret of success – learning from the mistakes and changing our behavior in the future. Theoretically, using the formula in Leviticus, one could habitually repeat particular sins or transgressions and simply return regularly to the priest to make additional sacrifices.

However, in our contemporary ritual one of the instructions that must be followed is the sincere desire to change. This is what repentance is all about. However, unlike both the biblical text and the “Sin-B-Gone” kit, there is no guarantee or assurance of forgiveness. Just as repentance is a process, so too is forgiveness. Neither come easily. Both require the building (or rebuilding) of trust. Both necessitate growth. And both lead to comfort and healing.

As we approach Pesach and celebrate the season of freedom, spring and renewal may we all be more aware of our interactions with others, our world and that which is holy. May we learn from our mistakes. May we be more forgiving. And may all our “sins be gone.”

Rabbi Steve Burnstein is the Director of the World Union’s Center for Leadership Development and Education in Jerusalem.

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