The guilt offering, asham, concludes this week’s Torah portion of Vayikra, the first reading in the Book of Leviticus. It follows the details for the burnt, meal and well-being offerings, regular sacrifices that were offered on a daily basis. The sin and guilt offerings, by contrast, were only performed when the need arose.
They were offered when there was a wrongdoing to correct. It should be noted that, despite popular belief, such rituals never offered remedies for intentional wrongs. One can never say, “I will steal this or that and then bring some really beautiful turtledoves or pigeons, sheep or goats, to the
to mend my ways.”
The asham sacrifice was therefore about remedying unintended wrongs. When people realized their wrongdoing they would then bring this guilt offering. The chapter offers a litany of wrongs for which the guilt offering helps to make amends. Each concludes with the refrain: “…though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt.” In other words the wrong was originally overlooked or perhaps forgotten, but then later recalled. The Torah offers a corrective, the asham, the guilt offering.
Yet such situations occur far more frequently than the portion suggests. How often do we lie awake at night and say, “I really should not have said that.”? We awake and discover ourselves plagued by guilt feelings. If only there was an asham sacrifice to offer come morning. Contemporary culture however suggests that we disavow and distance ourselves from these guilty feelings. Guilt prevents us from realizing our potential; it stands in the way of personal fulfillment.
How many unintended wrongs remain then lingering to be remedied? Perhaps this was the purpose of the asham sacrifice. To be sure it often sought to make amends for ritual wrongs. “When a person touches any impure thing…” Then again it could serve as a goad to action, a prompt that we seek out those we have wronged. The animal is brought before the altar and the sin is confessed. The Hebrew hints at the offering’s greater purpose. The verb to confess is reflexive. It is as if to say, “One shall admit to oneself.”
Our feelings of guilt lead to such an admission. Rather than burying these feelings, ignoring them or even viewing them as the root cause of psychological crisis, we should look instead at this angst as our contemporary offering. We should allow it to motivate and move us to greater good. Freeing ourselves of guilt could perhaps lead to greater personal fulfillment. But there is always a cost.
The price is our relationship with others.
The Hebrew for sacrifice is korban. It derives from the word to draw near. To the ancient mind the purpose of the sacrifices was to draw nearer to God. Perhaps the lesson of the sacrifice is that they can also help us draw near to others.
Guilt feelings are sometimes the beginning of repair. And repair is often all that relationships require.
This could be our greatest of offerings—in any age.