In this week’s parsha the Torah discusses the ashum talui, which is an offering that is brought in cases where one has a doubt about what he did. An ashum is also brought if someone took hekdesh unintentionally or someone falsely denied owing money and made a false oath attesting to this. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch tried to find a connection between these different cases. He takes as an example the person who uses an item belonging to hekdesh. Aside from the obligation to bring an offering and repaying the full value of the item that was taken, he is also penalized an extra fifth of the value. The idea behind this is that the person who stole intentionally from hekdesh is consciously aware that this item has greater kedushah, yet he decides to do wrong. However, the person who takes from hekdesh by accident, clearly does not have the proper reverence for holy items and this is the source of his sin.
When I was a boy of around 10 years old, my father’s congregation was building their synagogue structure. On Shabbos afternoon, my father happened to walk by and saw a man loading bricks from the construction site and putting them into the trunk of his car. He stopped and questioned the man (who did not realize that he was the Rabbi of this future synagogue), asking him “What are you doing?” He responded “I am taking these bricks because they will fit in perfectly for an addition I would like to make to my fireplace.” To this my father countered “Are you aware that they are building a holy building here using these bricks? You are stealing the bricks from this holy building!” The man then returned the bricks to their place! This is a classic example that when people perceive that things are holy, they try to keep a distance. Even if he would have taken them on purpose knowing that they were holy, his value system is in place: He’ll steal from anything.
Yet the person who is aware that something is holy, but doesn’t properly care for it (e.g. the above man might put the “holy” bricks next to the pile of “regular” bricks, and then “accidentally” take the wrong bricks to build the fireplace), this type of man is lacking in reverence. So too, the person may even steal someone else’s money, but would be afraid to make a false oath.
Many times people have regrets on the sins that they have committed, and they are willing to bring an offering. Yet this idea of saying “we are guilty because we didn’t hold it in the proper esteem” is not necessarily part of their program. Even the Kohen Gadol is one who sometimes has to bring an asham, because as the classic example of the ehrliche Jew, we expect him to have the appropriate sensitivities in place.
Just a short while ago a man called me immediately after Shabbos just to make sure that that which he “paskened for himself” was correct regarding hilchos Shabbos. Unfortunately, in my opinion he violated a biblical prohibition and I told him the truth. Immediately he said, “that means I have to write down to bring a korbon chatas.” I was very moved, but I was even more moved the next morning when he called me again to discuss the question, and he commented to me that he already initiated a new seder to learn hilchos Shabbos to ensure that this would not happen again. This man is only obligated to bring a chatas and not an asham. I would venture to say that the one who would have to bring an asham would never make a learning seder due to his apathy.
May we be blessed that we should be able to serve Hashem with clarity and have the proper boundaries in place to ensure that accidents don’t happen.