From Guilt to Action

The sacrificial system teaches that coming nearer to God requires coming nearer to each other.


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When I wash myself with water I shudder, thinking:

“This is the sweat of millions of laborers.”  Street-walkers are my bastard sisters, and sinister criminals–souls perhaps transmigrated from me.  Concerning those murdered, I think that I encouraged the assassin.  Perhaps I insulted the disgraced people in my town.  Something in me confesses “I’m guilty a thousand times for your distress.”  I want to throw my head at your doorsteps– Prisons, hospitals–and beg forgiveness.  –Abraham Joshua Heschel 

Guilt is assumed to be part and parcel of the modern Jewish experience. We laugh about our tribe’s over-developed sense of shame: there are countless jokes about guilt-inducing Jewish mothers and Woody Allen films featuring neurotic Jewish sons.

In this poem, however, guilt is no laughing matter. In scene after scene of injustice, Abraham Joshua Heschel confronts excruciating examples of personal responsibility. He seeks to confess and beg forgiveness. But to whom? And how? His guilt produces an existential anxiety that tortures him, but provides little benefit to his perceived victims.

The Guilt Offering

In parashat Tzav, guilt feelings are transformed into actions bringing healing. The ritual of the guilt offering, asham, is straightforward. One who suspects or knows that he is guilty of wrongdoing, either by commission or omission, brings a ram without blemish to a priest at the altar. 

Sections of the animal are burned and turned into smoke while other sections are set aside to be cooked and eaten by the priests (Leviticus 7:2-10). Offering this sacrifice, a person’s guilt is made publicly manifest and is then absolved.

The ancient system of sacrifice offered a ritual of coming together for the community. Rather than worry in isolation about acts committed and omitted, the individual was able to articulate the wrong and bring a symbol of contrition. 

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.

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