Rambam explained that the purpose of sacrifices in the Sanctuary and then the Temple was to wean the Children of Israel away from idolatry. One type of offering, the “chatat” or sin offering was brought by the High Priest, the leaders, ordinary individuals and the community as a whole.
These were for sins which were committed inadvertently, “be-shogeg”. R’ Jonathan Sacks wrote that this type of act is regarded these days as a mistake, wrong-doing was not intended. R’ SR Hirsch wrote that the sin offering is a penalty for carelessness, and the fact that you have to pay a price will make you take more care in the future.
R’ Sacks wrote that we think of sin as something we did intentionally, for example as the result of yielding to temptation, or in a moment of rebellion. We know inwardly that we have done wrong. The only adequate moral response is repentance, ”teshuvah”. This involves three things, remorse (charatah), confession (vidui) , and a resolution never to commit the sin again (kabbalat he-atid). The result is that G-d forgives us (selicha u-mechila). A good example of this is in Ellul and the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur when the whole people engages in the process of repentance for their sins of the year.
A sacrifice wouldn’t be enough to achieve forgiveness. R’ Isaac Arama wrote that the difference between an intentional and unintentional sin was that in the former case both the body and soul were at fault whereas with the latter it was just the body. A physical sacrifice could atone for a physical wrong committed by the body, but not an intentional wrong where the soul was also involved.
R’ Sacks wrote that in addition to the aspect of guilt and shame, there are two other dimensions to sin. One is the sense of the transgression of a boundary. R’ Sack explained that the word “chet” which we use repeatedly on Yom Kippur and the days leading up to it, means to “miss the mark” or to deviate from the proper path. He wrote that we have committed an act which “somehow disturbs the moral balance of the world”. The other dimension he referred to was that sin “defiles”. It leaves a stain on your character. R’ Sacks quoted from the Torah when G-d said about Yom Kippur “on that day, atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you (le-taher etchem) .Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins”.
R’ Sacks concluded that the law of the sin offering reminds us that we can do harm unintentionally, and this can have unintended consequences. The best way to put things right is to make a sacrifice. In ancient times this would have been on the altar, but nowadays the best way is to give charity, or to perform an act of kindness to others (chessed). “Charity and kindness help mend what is broken in the world and in our soul”.