Friday, March 28, 1997 | return to: torah


Tsav: The Torah is designed for those missing the mark

by Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman

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Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Numbers 19:1-22

Ezekiel 36:16-38

Words for abstract concepts in Hebrew all seem to derive from words for concrete things or actions.

In Hebrew grammar, the roots remain fairly obvious, so that one can usually find the concrete source word without too much trouble.

Consider, for example, the sin offering described in this week's Torah reading (Leviticus 6:17-23). How would you go about defining "sin"? You might have to explain in terms of its relationship to responsibility, conscience, obedience, right and evil. In short, it appears as a pretty abstract concept, whether called "sin" in English or hatat in Hebrew.

The Hebrew word "hatat," however, has a clear concrete meaning to go with its abstract one. In the Book of Judges we read about a band of sharpshooters, so trained and talented that every one of them can sling a stone at a hair and not miss (Judges 20:16). The word in this verse that means "miss," yehetu in Hebrew, clearly has the same root as "hatat." "Sin," in Hebrew, means something like "missing the target."

We reinforce this observation when we notice that a person becomes eligible to bring a sin offering when he or she has sinned "in error" (Lev. 4:27). The sin offering does not become available to the willful and rebellious, but only to the clumsy and unsuccessful.

Oddly enough, the sin offering has exactly the same name as the sin. In Hebrew, we call both "hatat." Our translator has helpfully clarified matters by putting the extra word "offering" into the verse: "This is the teaching of the sin offering" (Lev. 6:18).

Someone who reads the original just has to figure out from the context whether it means a sin or a sin offering.

Elsewhere in the Torah, the tendency to sin appears, imagined as a sort of beast, and called by this same name, "hatat" (Gen. 4:7). To make things more complicated, our passage refers to "the Kohen who performs the sin offering" (Lev. 6:19), but in Hebrew the Kohen simply does some intensive form of the same verb, which thus means, in its different forms, "to miss the mark, to sin and to perform the sin offering."

This grammar suggests that cause and effect get all tangled together: One has a tendency to miss the mark; one behaves in a way inaccurately; one misses the mark and so one needs a ceremony of atonement; others help one undergo that ceremony. The tendency, the inaccuracy, the error, the sacrifice and the performance all belong to this tangled ball of yarn; all come from this same root.

And what of the opposite verb, a verb that would mean to shoot accurately, to attempt the target and hit it? In the Bible, I would identify yaro as the root that comes closest to that definition. It certainly means shooting (see 2 Samuel 11:24), though I do not feel sure that it always includes hitting the target.

The more abstract meanings of this verb, "guiding" and "teaching," seem to me to derive from this concrete, physical root word. And it seems plausible to me that the noun "Torah" stems from this root. Torah, with all its abstract meanings -- Law, teaching, a body of knowledge -- thus derives from something like aiming accurately to hit the target, and thus means the opposite of sin.

Restate our verse, "This is the teaching of the sin offering" (Lev. 6:18), without translating the two key terms, and it comes out: "This is the Torah of the `hatat.'" This is the straight-shooting, target-hitting way to deal with having spent one's shot inaccurately, having missed the target.

The writer is rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.


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