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When a person is not sure whether he has sinned… he shall bring a perfect ram for a guilt offering… and the priest will effect atonement for him. It is indeed a guilt offering; he has certainly made himself guilty before G-d (5:17-19).
The last half of the parasha categorizes and details the Torah-ordained sin offerings brought in Tabernacle / Temple times. Most of those offerings address the situation of "putting right" a serious transgression that was (a) certainly committed, and (b) committed by accident. The verses quoted above take the offerings into another area: where the person is uncertain whether the sin was committed in the first place. In that case, the person does not bring the conventional chatat (sin offering) but instead the asham talui - the "pending guilt offering". Rashi explains that this offering is to ensure protection from possible Divine retribution in the event that the sin had indeed been committed.
The Torah, however, "rubs in" the situation of the "doubtful sinner". Strangely, it offers no comment on the person who is certain that he sinned by accident, but it seems to come down heavily on the individual who brings an offering and is not even sure that he did anything wrong in the first place, with "… he has certainly made himself guilty before G-d".
The Sforno explains that there is an issue of attitude. There must have been an element of carelessness involved for him to be in that doubtful situation in the first place. Thus he renders the last-quoted verse with "by his carelessness in having got into the doubtful situation, he has made himself guilty before G-d".
This attitude may be illustrated with the following example. Reuben has been putting on tefillin every day since his Bar Mitzvah. It is the first thing he does every weekday. One day he had a pre-dawn flight and could only put on tefillin on reaching his destination, which was late in the afternoon. Overtired from his journey and out of his routine, he suddenly found that night had fallen, and he hadn't worn tefillin that day. His shock and regret were enormous, and indeed reflected how seriously he takes the observance of this mitzvah. (Though he would not have been eligible for a chatat as he had not transgressed a Torah-expressed prohibition.)
Simeon is in a similar situation. Unlike Reuben, he was not certain, but in doubt whether on not he put on tefillin earlier in the day. That doubt may well have been rooted in a more casual attitude to the whole mitzvah. For had he taken it as seriously as Reuben, the act of putting on tefillin would have made an impression on him for the rest of the day; he would certainly have remembered having put on tefillin if indeed he had done so. And thus Reuben was certain when he remembered that he hadn't. Simeon was not certain.
Thus the Sforno's explanation is that the Torah is drawing attention to the reality of being in doubt. For doubt can be rooted in not having taken mitzvah observance and relationship with G-d seriously enough.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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