This week’s Parashah, though couched in a terminology that may seem unfamiliar to modern ears, deals with issues that are topical for every age–issues of guilt and redress, wrong-doing and atonement. What is especially striking is that these issues are first brought up in the Torah in the context of unwitting transgression. The focus throughout this first parasha of Vayikra is on mistakes and cases of doubt. There is an important message in this: we seldom know for sure if what we’re doing is wrong. And yet, only one who can acknowledge responsibility for his past actions is in a position to change his future actions.
Can we do T’shuvah for acts committed under compulsion? Even in the absence of responsibility, the need for atonement can be met. We feel contaminated by being brought to the point of ultimate helplessness, but healing comes from our learning to take responsibility for our own lives from this point on. We feel guilty for living through our own deaths, but healing comes from the ability to partake of life and give life as much and as selflessly as possible. Should a person be denied the healing of T’shuvah, just because he isn’t guilty?
The rabbis of the Talmud sought to anchor Purim in the Biblical tradition, with varying degrees of success. But one of the most striking rabbinic comments appears in a surprising place: in Massechet Shabbat, we find a curious reference to the events on which Purim is based: “’The Jews confirmed and accepted’—on that occasion they confirmed what they had accepted long before.” What exactly, did the Jews living in the Persian exile accept?