Parshat Vayikra

by Roni Ben-David, Director of Social Justice and Inclusion 

Have you ever done something, deliberately or unintentionally, that went against your values or moral beliefs? How did it impact you? Perhaps you felt a sense of guilt that drained your energy, disrupted your relationship with others, and caused you distress. There’s a term for this – “moral injury” – which refers to the psychological, behavioral, social, and spiritual aftermath of acting in a way that goes against one’s values. Growing up, I was instructed to apologize if I harmed another person. Beyond this, I was not given any guidance on the nuances of relating to my own wrongdoings. In this week’s Torah portion, I’m struck by how a set of seemingly antiquated laws held the wisdom to address the phenomenon of moral injury for our people.

Parshat Vayikra includes a description of two types of sacrifices that the Jewish people are commanded to offer God – a sin offering (hatat) and a guilt offering (asham). These apply to transgressions ranging from touching an “unclean animal” to finding a lost article and denying it. The transgressions listed could be deliberate or inadvertent. Each one requires a specific type of sacrifice. From a secular materialist perspective, these elaborate rituals of sacrifice seem unnecessary and outdated. If one seeks forgiveness from the persons harmed, offering reasonable reparations, what is the benefit of a ritual seeking forgiveness from God?

Over the last couple of years at JCHS, we have been offering community members the opportunity to participate in a facilitated “restorative circle” in incidences of harm. The circle allows members to move beyond a punitive paradigm in order to get back into the right relationships with themselves and others. Much like this ancient ritual, it has the potential to empower participants to make amends on a spiritual level. When we are accountable to not only our human relationships but also our relationship with the divine, we are more likely to forgive ourselves for the lapse and move forward with more conscious awareness.

Given that we no longer offer sacrifices, we might each establish our own personal rituals to help us bring more alignment between our values and actions; and when we experience regret about our part in a situation, to take responsibility and feel the grace of God or our higher self.