I didn’t mean to…

This week’s Torah portion, VaYikrah, introduces an aspect of human nature that is critically important for parents and educators both to think about and to understand – it discusses what happens when a person breaks a rule unintentionally. The Hebrew word, BiShGaga, is translated as “unwittingly,” “unintentionally,” or most accurately, “by mistake.” Rules and intentional or unintentional transgressions are core elements of child-rearing and education, so it is important for us to take a look at the ways in which Jewish tradition approaches these issues.

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לֵאמֹר֒ נֶ֗פֶשׁ כִּֽי־תֶחֱטָ֤א בִשְׁגָגָה֙ מִכֹּל֙ מִצְוֺ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר לֹ֣א תֵעָשֶׂ֑ינָה וְעָשָׂ֕ה מֵאַחַ֖ת מֵהֵֽנָּה׃

“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: A person who sins by mistake—of any of YHWH’s commandments that are not to be done—and does any one of them:”

Leviticus 4:2

There are plenty of important implications in this simple phrase. First, it is important to note that as we moved through the birth of the nation of Israel in Shemot, there began to be explicit rules delivered directly or indirectly from G-d. If there are rules, then we know there will be consequences for breaking them. Many of the consequences listed in the Torah are quite brutal, and a number of them are forms of capital punishment – they kill the transgressor.

With foresight and wisdom, the text here acknowledges the imperfection of humans, and begins to create the expectation that mistakes will be made, and what to do about them. Parents and educators are also setting up and enforcing rules in school and home which we believe will guide our children to learn and grow. So what happens when someone breaks a rule, on purpose or by accident?

Answering that question requires us to clarify both the reasoning behind the rule as well as the nature of the transgression. What are your primary goals or reasons for establishing this rule in the first place? Safety and protection? Establishing and maintaining your own authority? Assessing growth or development? As a parent, for example, I will react differently to the transgression (intentional or not) of the rule we have for our 6 year old to hold my hand in the street than I will to the rule about turning the lights off when you leave the room.

Just as we see in Jewish law, there may still be a consequence for an unintentional transgression, though it will likely be less harsh. Sometimes at school we have to process a disagreement or a physical altercation between students. It is very common for one child to read the actions of another as intentional, and for either or both to claim that their actions were not on purpose – even very young children understand this difference, and that consequences will be lighter if the rule-setters believe their intentions were positive not negative. Sometimes, however, a rule is a rule. If one person hurts another, there will have to be restitution, whether or not it was a mistake, and this isn’t just enacting justice – it is required if their relationship is to be repaired.

Ultimately, this is the direction we see Jewish tradition take with this type of legal issue as well – while intentions matter, sometimes transgression is transgression, and the most important thing is that the interpersonal relationship and spiritual relationship (between human and divine) is repaired. The type of society these legal considerations were designed to create is one in which there is a central concern for these relationships above all else, and that is still the type of society we strive to create today.

This shabbat, ask your kids to tell you about times that they have broken a rule at home or school by mistake, and what that felt like or what happened. Share your own examples, too.

Shabbat Shalom,