You are driving down Highway 101 and someone cuts you off. What do you do? Do you assume they did it inadvertently? Or did they do it on purpose? Our minds and our hearts race and the thoughts begin to daisy-chain as we conclude exactly why someone is driving the way they are driving. We are crystal clear about the impact this has on us!
Pirkei Avot, the collection of Jewish folk wisdom, advises us: dan kaf z’khut — give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume they did it inadvertently and go on with your day. Easier said than done, no?
But we are also struck by those who seem to go about the world, dafka, specifically doing things wrong and doing it in our face. The quintessential Jewish example of this is the Jew who never eats a ham sandwich on any day of the year. Yet on Yom Kippur, this person relishes a high treyf sandwich, violating not one or two, but three mitzvot: the prohibition to eat at all on Yom Kippur, the prohibition to eat pig at any time, and the prohibition to mix meat and milk at any time. Jewish tradition calls such a person, a meizid (one who violates intentionally). The language is firm and unequivocal.
On the other hand, the person who does something inadvertently is known as a shogeg — she didn’t realize she was doing something wrong.
In our parashah, we have some form of the word shogeg that appears nine times. Here the word is translated as “unwittingly, “or “in error.”
We see the case laid out in Numbers 15:22-30:
If you unwittingly fail to observe any one of the commandments that the Lord has declared to Moses … If this was done unwittingly, through the inadvertence of the whole community, the whole community shall bring an offering.
The priest shall make expiation for the whole Israelite community and they shall be forgiven for it happened to the entire people through error. The whole Israelite community and the stranger shall be forgiven.
If an individual sins unwittingly, he offers an offering. The priest makes expiation on the behalf of the one who erred who sinned unwittingly … There is one ritual for anyone who acts in error.
What does it mean for a community to “err unwittingly?”
Ramban, the mystical medieval commentator, points out that this happened in the day of King Jeroboam and other wicked kings in Northern Israel in the 10th century BCE, when people forgot the Torah and the commandments. The same thing happened during Second Temple times, as we read in the biblical book of Nehemiah. This, in the words of the Ramban, is how a community can violate something unwittingly. They didn’t even know about the commandments.
The rabbis interpreted this as a case in which a community acted on the rulings of the court. The court ruled, people acted in good faith and followed the law, and then it is later discovered that everyone erred, because the law was wrong.
But when it comes to individual actions, at some point a bunch of shogegs, or unwitting actions, can add up to being meizid, willful wrongs. At what point can a person no longer claim, “not to have known”? This week’s parashah is clear about the consequences to a citizen or stranger who acts defiantly and reviles God’s commandments: “that person shall be cut off from among his people … he bears his guilt.”
The rabbinic take on this section of our parashah, should spur us all to be responsible civil citizens and Jewish citizens — to know the law. Or, in the cases where we didn’t, to own up to that fact — not to shirk our responsibility to own up to legal consequences.
This is legal and human tension that we hold in Judaism, and it is a tall order to live up to: to act as if others are in the shogeg category, but to guard ourselves against becoming meizids. May we all give the benefit of the doubt to the other, whether we are driving down Highway 101 or pushing a shopping cart at Trader Joe’s and yet be diligent ourselves, being personally accountable in our actions to others and to the broader community.