The laws of offerings are generally relatively detailed, technical, and obscure. There are often profound moral, theological, or inspirational insights, however, that are hidden beneath their surface. There is one such law in the passage that describes the intricacies of the communal sin offering. The Talmud derives, using one of its principles of biblical interpretation, that this sin offering may only be offered during the day (Megillah 20b). The interpretation is based on the use of the word “v’cheepair,” and he shall atone, which is also used in the context of Yom Kippur. The Talmud concludes that just as the atonement of Yom Kippur is effective in the day of Yom Kippur rather than the night (as implied by the Torah’s description of Yom Kippur), the atonement of this sin offering can also only be achieved during the day. What is the meaning and message of this law? What does the Torah intend to teach about the communal by disqualifying a communal sin offering that is offered at night?
Atonement can only be achieved after repentance. As the prophets would later make clear, sin offerings are utterly ineffective without a change of heart and behavioral improvement of the sinner. But true repentance does not consist of mere behavior modification. Immoral, sinful, or corrupt behavior always originates with a defective attitude, confused world-view, or flawed character. Perhaps the day-only law of the communal sin offering contains a lesson about proper repentance. The darkness of night often signifies lack of clarity, confusion, or befuddlement, whereas the bright light of day signifies clarity, revelation, and insight. A repenting sinner that wants to bring a sin offering to the Temple during the “night” – when he has changed merely his behavior, but his underlying values and attitudes remain the same – has not yet completed full repentance. Repentance must parallel the day – it must be characterized by a fundamental change of mindset accomplished by smoking out the character flaws and ways of thinking that enabled the sinner’s original fall. This requirement of the communal sin offering teaches the crucial message that resolving to get back on the right path is a good first step. But true repentance and atonement cannot happen without sincere introspection, self-discovery, and ultimate change of character and attitude in the foundation of the psyche itself.