“an inadvertent violation that involves committing an act…” – in Hebrew, shig’gat ha-ma’aseh (שגגת המעשה). Such is the rabbinic understanding of the case described in our parashah.
“If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt— or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge—he shall bring a female goat without blemish as his offering for the sin of which he is guilty.” [Leviticus 4:27-28]
We all make mistakes. To err, after all, is human. What happens next is what really matters. The Torah’s words detail a number of steps, starting with awareness. Responsibility begins at the moment at which one ‘realizes one’s guilt’ or when the erroneous act is ‘brought to one’s knowledge.’
[Peter Paul Rubens ‘Sacrifice of the Old Covenant’ 17th century]
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the great 1st century sage, offers up a provocative teaching. “Fortunate (ashrei) is the generation whose ruler brings a sacrifice for a sin s/he has committed unwittingly. If its ruler brings a sacrifice, is there any need to say what one of the common people would do; and if s/he brings a sacrifice for a sin committed unwittingly is there any need to say what s/he would do in case of a sin committed willfully?” [Talmud Bavli, Horayot 10b]
Commenting on this teaching, my friend and teacher Rabbi Shai Held argues that “a generation whose leaders respond to charges of misconduct by denying, obfuscating, or shifting incessantly to the passive (‘mistakes were made’) is a generation whose children learn to offer an honest, straightforward apology for bad behavior only when their backs are against the wall – only, that is, when all other (self-exonerating) tactics have failed. But a generation whose leaders step forward and say, ‘Yes, I really blew it, and I’m sorry’ just might learn the importance of integrity and accountability.” [Heart of Torah, vol. 2, p. 11]
The Torah’s construct is a call for precisely that kind of integrity and accountability. We make mistakes. We do wrong. Sometimes it’s truly unintended; sometimes we mean it. Either way, the act has significance; what we do or say leaves a real and often lasting impression. The sin or purification offering mandated by Leviticus in a case of inadvertent wrongdoing is the absolute equivalent of “an honest, straightforward apology for bad behavior.” That’s the standard to which we are called. Nothing more; nothing less.