There is a very specific set of commandments that deal with our failures to be cognizant of ourselves in our surroundings. The specific verses are:
Or when a person touches any impure thing (be it the carcass of an impure beast or the carcass of impure cattle or the carcass of an impure creeping thing) and the fact has escaped notice, and then, being impure, that person realizes guilt;
Or when one touches human impurity (any such impurity whereby someone becomes impure) and, though having known about it, the fact has escaped notice, but later that person realizes guilt;
Or when a person utters an oath to bad or good purpose (whatever a human being may utter in an oath) and, though having known about it, the fact has escaped notice, but later that person realizes guilt in any of these matters—
None of these come from rebelling against G-d, or seeking to do wrong in some way. Instead, they are the sins of not noticing – not being conscious of what is around us, what we have said… basically awareness of ourselves, what we say, and what is around us. These are the sins of not realizing that what we do matters – that we are important for the impact we have, and for what our words mean. These are the sins of cluelessness.
And so the offering we are commanded to bring is specifically connected to this concept:
The offerer shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first the bird for the sin offering, pinching its head at the nape without severing it.
Why this formulation? I think the symbolism is very clear: the point is that we, the stiff-necked people, need to make our necks more flexible. We need to look around, to remain aware of, and sensitive to, our surroundings. G-d does not want to behead His people for not paying attention: he wants us to pay attention.
There is more than this: we bring two birds, not one. Each bird has its own purpose:
That person shall bring to G-d, as the penalty for that of which one is guilty, two turtledoves or two pigeons—one for a sin offering and the other for an elevation offering.
Why these two offerings? I think it is a reminder of the first named sin in the Torah – when Cain killed Abel. Cain gives into his anger after choosing to ignore G-d’s advice:
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin crouches at the door, and to thee shall be his desire. Yet thou mayst rule over him.
Cain acted with a stiff neck – he was not prepared to listen to G-d’s advice. And so the first bird, the one for the sin offering, has its neck broken so that it becomes entirely flexible, able to turn any which way, reminding us that when we do not pay attention, bad things happen.
But what about the second bird, the elevation offering? I think this is a reminder that there is also a victim when we sin, even when we commit the sin of cluelessness. Others are hurt, just as Cain hurt Abel. Abel’s life was not lived out. He was the loss of potential, of all the ways in which he could have helped to elevate the world. And so we kill that second bird as an elevation offering, reminding the sinner that being unaware of what we do also has consequences for others and for the world as a whole. When we do not act with conscious awareness, we are guilty both of being stiffnecked, and of costing the world the opportunity to be elevated.
[an @iwe, @eliyahumasinter, @kidcoder and @susanquinn work!]