Ain’t That Asham: Vayikra 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: Why is “Jewish guilt” such a common stereotype? Do you think it emerged from modern, pop-culture portrayals of Jewish characters? Or is there something deep-seeded in the origins of our religion that lends itself to discussions of guilt?

Among the several types of sacrifices discussed in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is the asham offering, or “guilt” offering.

The Pitch: “Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of Adonai’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them — if it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to Adonai.” (Leviticus 4:2-3)

First Swing: “Said Rabbi Yosi: See the blindness of those who rob or defraud! For a trifling sum they are called sinner, liar, thief, defrauder. They must bring a costly asham and are forgiven only through confession and repentance. Moreover Scripture accounts them as having taken a life. Whose life? According to one opinion, that of their victim; according to another opinion, their own life. But the righteous, which are generous and give to others, are accounted as having acquired lives. They become like their Creator who revives the spirit of the lowly and oppressed.” — Midrash HaGadol

Second Swing: “Said Rabbi Akiva: What does the Torah mean by saying: “To commit a trespass against the Lord?” When the creditor and debtor are two parties to any transaction conduct their business through deeds and witnesses, a repudiation of obligation constitutes a repudiation of the witnesses and the deed. But he who deposits something with his neighbor, does not want a soul to know about it, other than the Third Party between them. When he repudiates his obligation, he repudiates the Third Party (i.e. God) between them.” — Sifra

Third Swing: “‘Tony’s Bloody Guilt Roast’: When we first put this dish on the altar, it brought a lot of guilty Israelites into the Tent. So we heard a lot of opinions. Some folks prefer to do the slaughter inside or flash fry smaller strips of fat. But at the Tent, we like to keep our floor clean and our cuts large. Big cuts of meat — like you’re going to have with a bull — are some of our favorite offerings to burn at the Tent, because they’re so easy to do well. The Lord might disagree, but we think that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if you do entrails first or last, because that liver/kidney/loins combo is impossible to beat. Throw a hunk on your altar and let it rest a good, long while. You might notice the meat shrinking and be tempted to jump in there. Don’t do it. Meat is a muscle, so it’s going to contract as it burns. If you’re doing it right, that bull is going to get nice and smoky. Just relax. You can’t rush a good guilt offering.” — Michelle Quint, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, editor

Late-Inning Questions: While Midrash HaGadol sees a guilt offering as penance for the one who has taken his own life (or, at least, ruined his own life) and Sifra sees the offering as a punishment for rejecting God, Quint spoofs the process as if one were preparing a gourmet dish. These commentaries validate the range of reactions we might have to “guilt trips” – some take them seriously, while others find ways to laugh them off. Is there value to “Jewish guilt”? If so, how is it useful? Or does it more often distract us from finding emotional space? Would our world be better if we felt more guilty about the human condition? Or, perhaps, would it be better if we felt less guilty?

On Deck at Emanu-El: A well-deserved Mazal Tov to Marilyn Hoffman for being honored by our congregation tomorrow evening. We look forward to thanking her for her years of service and generosity, which, we pray, will continue to inspire us in the years ahead.

The Big Inning at the End: I’m curious to hear your opinions of the fate of White Sox first-baseman Adam LaRoche, who chose to retire this week rather than cede to his team’s demands that his 14-year-old son be present in the team clubhouse less frequently. It’s difficulty not to sympathize with LaRoche, who chose to turn down a $13 million payday rather than follow the team’s rules. On the other hand, it sounds as if the rules were not that unreasonable in the first place. We all want our workplaces to be family-friendly, but there can be reasonable limits to that concept. Any thoughts?

Shabbat Shalom!