When the whole community has erred but the matter escapes their notice

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By Rabbi Dr. Sanford H. Shudnow
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vayikra,
Leviticus 1:1-5:26.


I spoke with a Christian clergyman about the idea of writing a book on the Book of Genesis. He responded with enthusiasm, even saying that the Book of Exodus is also a good book. But he warned me to avoid Leviticus and Numbers. I understood his great hesitancy because I have studied the attitudes of other religions, even including some in Judaism, who would rather that Leviticus, known as Vayikra, was not part of the Torah.

This line of thinking is misguided and demonstrates the lack of devotion given to the study of the more complex text of biblical literature. Many want to imbibe the pabulum of religion, to get, as they used to say, their warm fuzzies without much expenditure of effort.

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While Leviticus may be the most complex book of Torah, devoid of almost any narrative, it is in my estimation the most significant, core work of the five books of the Torah, and is often referred to as the book of holiness.

Yes, Leviticus deals in the main with sin and its expiation. The major method delineated for atonement is by means of the offering of korbanot (animal sacrifices). The Book of Exodus ended with the building of the Mishkan (Holy Tabernacle), the portable sanctuary for the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness. Now, it was in readiness for the worship of God and to set aright the relationship of every person to God, on the individual level and as a nation as a whole.


Every category of person is dealt with, whether kohen (priest), elder or commoner. No one is free of responsibility of setting himself or herself straight with God.

One is struck by the mitzvah (commandment) of setting aright the relationship of the entire nation to God when they err, even when it does not come to their attention, until later.

“If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt — when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a sin offering, and bring it before the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 4:13-14).”

Now, guilt is as great an asset in Judaism as it is in other religions. It helps us stay on the right course, helping us to self-adjust and correct ourselves.

The Torah acknowledges that humans are just that — human. They are subject to flaws and frailties. The Torah, in acknowledging this, allows for the antidote, through sacrifice, repentance, charity and prayer, along with many other methods especially gemilut hasadim (deeds of lovingkindness).

Often, people loathe to admit their own guilt. They prefer to point the finger in every direction but at themselves. Is there anyone who is free of all guilt and sin? Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) said it best: “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning” (7:20).

Casting blame on others seems to be quite common; admitting one’s guilt, coming to terms with it and trying to atone for it is so much more difficult.

It is interesting to note, the rabbis interpret the phrase kol Adat Yisrael (the whole community of Israel) to mean the Sanhedrin — the highest religious leadership of the Jewish people. We cannot avoid the message that the nation’s peoplehood is embodied in its religious, moral and ethical leadership.

We are taught that the first step in teshuvah (repentance) is public acknowledgment of the sin, the error. After that, all is possible. Without that vital step, all is lost.

If only the many nations and religious groups who constitute the human race would embrace the concept of teshuvah through which we seek atonement for hurtful words and/or deeds, I believe that humanity would move forward, and people’s lives would be enhanced.

Rabbi Dr. Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain. His last duty station is now known as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

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