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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Taking Risks in Our Relationship with God

by Rabbi Dani Passow (Posted on March 20, 2024)
Topics: Sefer Vayikra, Torah, Vayikra

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In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Here I Am, the following scene unfolds with the protagonist, Jacob, and his wife Julia.

Jacob narrates:

“Let’s do something special,” I suggested a month before Julia’s fortieth birthday. “Something unlike us. A party. A blowout: band, ice cream truck, magician.”

“A magician?”

“Or a flamenco dancer.”

“No,” she said. “That’s the last thing I’d want.”

“Even if it’s last, it’s still on the list.”

She laughed and said, “It’s sweet of you to think of that. But let’s do something simple. A nice dinner at home.”

I tried a few times to persuade her, but she made clear, with increasing force, that she didn’t want “a big deal.”

“The thing I want most is to have a nice, quiet dinner with my family.”

The boys and I made her breakfast in bed that morning: fresh waffles, kale-and-pear smoothies…[We] ate lunch at one of the outside tables of her favorite Greek restaurant in Dupont Circle”…

It was getting dark when we made it home, with half a dozen bags of groceries for dinner supplies.

Julia and I unloaded the bags on the island and started putting away the perishables. Our eyes met, and I saw that she was crying. “What is it?” I asked.

“You’re going to hate me if I tell you.”

“I’m sure I won’t.”

“You’ll be extremely annoyed.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s an annoyance moratorium on birthdays.”

And then, really letting the tears come, she said, “I actually wanted a big deal.”

“Here,” I said, handing her a box of orecchiette. “Put these away.”

“That’s as far as your sympathy can reach?”

“Put the pretentious pasta away.”

“No,” she said. “No. Today, I won’t.”

I laughed.

“It’s not funny,” she said, banging the counter.

“It’s so funny,” I said.

She inhaled, understanding something she didn’t yet understand, and opened the pantry door. Out spilled the boys, and the grandparents, and Mark and Jennifer, and David and Hannah, and Steve and Patty, and someone turned the music on, and it was Stevie Wonder, and someone released the balloons from the hall closet, and they jangled the chandelier, and Julia looked at me.

A good partner in a relationship can intuit what the other might feel or need. That’s a risk. Imagine, for a moment, if Jacob had been wrong, how furious Julia would have been, walking into a surprise party that she explicitly stated she didn’t want. But that’s the risk one needs to take in relationships.

While it might sound surprising, this is also true about our relationship with God.

In Parashat Vayikra, we are introduced to the fundamental way we built a relationship with God in ancient Israel: the sacrifices. The sacrifices most common for a non-Kohen to bring were the Korban Chatat and Korban Asham, the sin and guilt offerings. Most of the time, when the average Jew was taking part in the fundamental mode of worship of the time, it was on account of their having made a halakhic error. And while this fact might seem surprising, it contains a deep underlying message about how the Torah views our relationship with God:

While we strive for religious perfection, maybe we’re not always supposed to get it right.

This notion is alluded to in a midrash about the Korban Chatat for the nasi, the tribal prince. We read in the parasha

אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָשִׂ֖יא יֶֽחֱטָ֑א וְעָשָׂ֡ה אַחַ֣ת מִכָּל־מִצְו‍ֹת֩ ה’ אֱ-לֹהָ֜יו אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹא־תֵֽעָשֶׂ֛ינָה בִּשְׁגָגָ֖ה וְאָשֵֽׁם: אֽוֹ־הוֹדַ֤ע אֵלָיו֙ חַטָּאת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר חָטָ֖א בָּ֑הּ וְהֵבִ֧יא אֶת־קָרְבָּנ֛וֹ שְׂעִ֥יר עִזִּ֖ים זָכָ֥ר תָּמִֽים:

If a tribal prince sins and unintentionally commits one of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, incurring guilt; if his sin that he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring his offering: an unblemished male goat (Vayikra 4:22-23)

The Tosefta (Bava Kama chapter 7) comments on the seemingly superfluous word “asher” and says it’s meant to indicate ashrei – happy.

אשרי הדור שהנשיא שלו מביא קרבן חטאת שגגה על שגגתו

Happy is the generation whose prince brings a sin-offering for his unintentional sin.

From one perspective, this midrash is praising a leader who has the humility to admit their mistake. But it can also be read as celebrating the generation whose leader has the courage to make mistakes in the first place.

Because the web of halakha is complex, with many possible permutations of competing values, it’s impossible for us to enter every situation knowing exactly what the proper halakhic path should be. It’s true, there are certain realms of halakha that are fairly straightforward. And if we so desire, we can attempt to live lives in which we minimize the moments when the correct course of action will be uncertain.

Alternatively, we can step out into the unpredictable, knowing that the only certainty is that we will make mistakes.

This week’s parsha suggests we choose the latter approach. The person who never makes a religious mistake will almost never bring a korban. While it might seem that a person with such a lofty record would be the religious model, the truth is that they won’t have as many opportunities to approach God through sacrifices. The Chatat and Asham are meant to provide us the security that, should we wade into the uncertain and make a mistake, this too will lead us to God.

אשרי הדור שהנשיא שלו מביא קרבן חטאת

Happy is the generation who whose prince brings a sin-offering.

Happy is the generation in which every member of the community brings a Chatat.

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