Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.”

(Written by Paul Anka for Frank Sinatra)

Modern man, increasingly the product of moral relativism, looks at life with few regrets. “After all,” the logic goes, “I am who I am because of the path I have taken. Had I taken a different path, I would not be me, nor would I be true to myself.” This semi-deterministic attitude, seasoned with a sizable dose of narcissism, leaves us fully accepting the choices we have made and the people we have become.

In fact, it may be said that only the “losers” in modern society regret their mistakes. Only they are made to feel guilty of having made colossal errors, whereas the missteps of the rich and famous are more often than not parlayed into the all-too-familiar circus of rehab, followed by a tell-all memoir, followed by talk-show appearances and assorted opportunities for public catharsis. The message is that when bad choices, poor judgment, self-indulgence and abusive behavior go too far, they may require reining-in or containment, but no regret is necessary.

The new world presented in this week’s parashah stands in contrast to this regret-free mindset. The Mishkan, and the sacrificial offerings that would be brought there, become a part of the Israelites’ reality in Parashat Vayikra. In a sense, we may say that mistakes – errors in judgment, oversights, sins large and small – lie at the very core of this holy edifice; the Mishkan is created in order to redress human failure. On the other hand, the world in which the Mishkan exists is a world in which change is possible, a world that breaks through the complacency of accepting oneself “as is,” a world in which we can strive to correct our failings.

The Mishkan does not provide healing from deliberate sin; premeditated offenses are not expunged by specific offerings. The “sin offerings,” for the most part, atone for transgressions committed accidentally, when the major offense was thoughtlessness of one kind or another. The experience of bringing an offering is intended to lead to heightened awareness and increased responsibility, on an intellectual level, for ones’ actions. The entire system of mitzvot is intended to create human beings that function on a higher level of cognitive awareness and spiritual alertness. We are enjoined to march through life not as automatons or as creatures of instinct or habit; rather, we are expected to be constantly thinking of the consequences of our actions. Intellectual sloth leads to a dulled sense of personal responsibility; this, in turn, will lead to the necessity for atonement, through sin offerings in the Mishkan.

The korban Olah, the very first offering listed in this parashah, is particularly instructive. This offering is generally brought as recompense, not for a violation of one of the negative commandments, but as a means of reconnecting with God after failing to fulfill a positive commandment. The Olah is an offering for a mitzvah that was not performed. It is an expression of regret for the good that was not achieved.

Both the thought process and the ethic taught by the korbanot can be transformative – even for those of us who only read about them in the Torah but are unable to experience them firsthand. As opposed to our society, where we are taught that all of our shortcomings can be attributed to every possible external factor, the world of korbanot places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the person who made the mistake, particularly when that mistake was accidental. More responsibility, not less, is called for; heightened alertness, a higher level of consciousness, more finely-attuned thoughtfulness, are the tools that enable us to avoid future transgressions – but that is not all.

The Judaic view of a perfected society is not a world in which we simply err less; avoiding sin is only part of the equation. In addition, we are commanded to constantly question whether we are doing enough good. Have we missed opportunities to do mitzvot? Have we been negligent or lazy, thus allowing a deficiency to exist in the world – a deficiency of good that we could have or should have filled? A very basic tenet of our faith encapsulates this dual mandate: “Distance yourself from evil and do good, pray for peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:15)

The point of origin of the Book of Vayikra is the korban Olah, a sacrifice that expresses regret for a missed opportunity to do good, to bring goodness into our lives and the lives of those around us. In a world in which we quickly forgive our own foibles, the Torah challenges us to look inside ourselves with humility and honesty, and to ask ourselves if we have done enough good. If the answer is “no,” we are instructed to bring an Olah– an offering from which man derives no physical benefit. The korban Olah is a burnt offering, dedicated entirely to God – just as we should be. When we internalize the lesson of this offering, we have taken the first steps on the path to a perfected world – a world with less error, but, no less importantly, a world with much more good.

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