Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 25 March 2023 / 3 Nisan 5783

Duty of Conscientiousness

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The parsha ends with commandments that find their atonement through the same offering — the korban asham, the guilt offering. These include meilah — mundane use of a sacred object - and safek — uncertainty with regard to certain severe transgressions. The common denominator of these three mitzvahs is that the offender displays indifference about the legality of his property and actions.

If a person inadvertently commits meilah — by using a sacred object or by transferring it to another’s possession — this shows that he has not distinguished properly between the sacred and the profane in his possession. The duty of guarding a sacred object should have moved him to make an exacting and careful separation. Interestingly, inadvertent misappropriation of a sacred object profanes it, whereas willful misappropriation does not. In that case, the object maintains its sanctity.

Safek, which makes one liable to bring a guilt offering, reveals the same attitude of indifference. The typical example of this safek is when one has two pieces of meat before him, where one is forbidden cheilev, punishable by karet,and the other is permissible — and he eats the forbidden meat, thinking it is the permissible one. The very existence of the uncertainty proves that he lacked a proper measure of conscientiousness, for he failed to separate properly between the permitted and the prohibited so as to keep far from sin. Interestingly, when one is uncertain whether a single piece before him is prohibited or forbidden, he is not liable to bring a guilt offering. The fact that the forbidden and permissible could be placed side by side evidences a greater carelessness.

From these laws, we learn that both the Sanctuary and the Law fear indifference more than transgression. The Sanctuary is exalted far above transgressors — they will never be able to detract from its sanctity. Indeed, their very opposition attests to sanctity. But the inadvertent acts that result from indifference — thoughtless inattentiveness — are a far greater threat.

In mitzvah observance, uncertainty that perhaps a transgression was committed is more serious than certainty of it! When the carelessness is a product of extreme indifference, Torah observance is at the height of vulnerability.

The Torah expects us to watch our step, and take reasonable precautions to safeguard the commandments. If we are careless and haphazard about our actions — so that doubt arises as to whether or not we have acted lawfully — then we already “bear sin.” But if we are conscientious and vigilant, we have been true to our duty.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra, 5:26

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