This week we read the longest parasha in the Torah, Nasso. One of the many interesting halachot mentioned this week is the law that if a person stole from a childless convert, (thus he has no one to inherit him) and the convert dies, the thief must pay the stolen money to a Cohain. This is a strange law on two accounts. First off, why should the thief have to pay at all? It is one thing if there is a claimant that takes him to court. Then we can understand that the thief would have to pay. In our case there is no claimant. Secondly, let us assume that the thief does have to pay. We would understand if he would have to donate the stolen money to charity, maybe even to a fund that helps converts. Why does the money go to the Cohain? Rashi, an early commentator, in his comments on Bava Kamma explains that the money being paid is a kaparah. The word kaparah is usually translated as atonement. In this context, the law is assuming that the thief has sinned and the money paid acts as atonement. I am going to be a little radical and suggest a different meaning for the word kaparah. I would like to posit that it means a replacement. Let me explain.
When we sin, we would like to assume that we have committed some offense against God. This is true, for God commanded us to act in a certain way, and we acted differently. In order to correct our sin we need to appease God, and thus gain atonement. This is all nice, but God does not take offense. It would be preposterous for us to assume that we, who are little more than dust and ashes, could offend God. Rather, when we sin, we have caused an imperfection in ourselves. We have wasted valuable energy and effort to follow a fallacy. In order to repent we need a kaparah, a replacement for the energy wasted, and for perfection not gained. This replacement is accomplished by actions that demonstrate our repentance. This is the ultimate kaparah.
The kaparah of old was usually an offering in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Cohain was the facilitator of this kaparah. We would offer a sin offering, showing recognition of our sin. By facilitating this process, the Cohain becomes part of the process, in some cases eating part of the offering. Rashi is suggesting that not only do sins between man and God need kaparah, but sins between man and his fellow man need kaparah as well. Of course with our explanation of kaparah this makes perfect sense, for one has created an imperfection in his soul through his theft. Thus, Rashi explains, the thief needs a kaparah. He must pay the money he owes, even though he cannot pay it back to the one he owes.The compensation of the money stolen is not just returning the money to its rightful owner, but is a way for the thief to restore his own perfection. It is now clear why the money is paid to the Cohain, for he is the facilitator of kaparah. What an incredible idea!
Kaparah is a concept that is well known among Jews. We are always praying that every trouble that affects us, from a stubbed toe to a death in the family should be a kaparah. This week, we learn that the greatest kaparot don't come from Hashem, but from ourselves. A radical idea, but one that can truly encourage us too!