What Is Expiation? How Do We Seek It?

Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus that we begin this Shabbat, is not for the faint of heart. Its focus at first is on sacrifice. It describes the killing of animals, cutting them up, the entrails, the blood, the fat, the smoke. Sacrifices are messy work, and the Torah provides the graphic details.
Vayikra describes a complex system in which people are offering different animals and substances for different reasons. Along with burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, come sin offerings and guilt offerings. When a person has committed a sin against the Lord’s commandments unknowingly, the priest makes expiation on their behalf by sacrificing a guilt offering.
But what is expiation and how do we seek it today? In the system described by Vayikra, expiation for sins that you did not mean to commit could be sought through the common practice of sacrifice once you realized you were guilty of them.
In the JPS Torah Commentary, Baruch Levine explains that sacrifice did not atone for “intentional or premeditated offenses,” and that there was a separate system of punishment for those in the Israelite legal system.
However, for certain sins, the guilty person brings an offering, and “The priest shall make expiation on his behalf before the Lord, and he shall be forgiven for whatever he may have done to draw blame thereby.”
In the United States, expiation is equated with imprisonment. Even after serving time, the odds of reentering society to live a normal life are so stacked against a person that he or she may never feel the full experience of atonement and forgiveness.As we prepare to consider the nuances of slavery and freedom during our Passover seders, the system of imprisonment and expiation in this country should also give us pause.
A recent article in Harvard Magazine looks at incarceration in America. The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, with about 1 in 100 adults in prison. Prisons are disproportionately populated with people of color and people who grew up in poverty. They have often witnessed or been victims of violence themselves. They have less educational opportunities to help remove themselves from the cycle of poverty and contact with violence. Drug addiction is frequently added to the mix.
All these factors contribute not only to putting people in jail in the first place, but also to making it extremely likely that they will end up back in jail for a crime committed after they are released. Ex-offenders hardly ever receive the social service support they need to rebuild their lives and find and keep employment once they are released from prison — yet in the short and long run providing those services would save society money.
Still, in our state there’s a proposal in the budget to build three new prisons, even as education funding is slashed.
These facts are just as graphic as the practices in Leviticus. They are not for the faint of heart. In order to build a society where we increase freedom, more systematic expiation from sin, we must look closely at them.
We must ask what social services are necessary for everyone to have a chance to atone, to rebuild and to move forward in forgiveness once they have served their time.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]


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