Numbers 15:22-25 describes the ritual for making atonement for accidental transgression of the mitzvot, God’s commandments. But the phrase in Numbers 15:22 is potentially confusing – the phrase kol hamitzvot literally suggests “all of the mitzvot“. The classic Jewish commentators (and common sense) reject that reading, because it would result in the atonement only being necessary if someone had accidentally transgressed every last one of God’s commandments.
Another plausible reading could be to suggest that if any particular one of the mitzvot is transgressed, then you need to follow the ritual. However, Jewish tradition reads instead that only one mitzvah has been violated – the commandment not to worship idolatry. A midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 111) explains the leap as follows:
It is, therefore, written “And if you err and do not do all of these mitzvot“: This comes to define “the one mitzvah.” Just as one who transgresses all of the mitzvot divests oneself of the Yoke, and breaks the covenant, and perverts the Torah, so, one who transgresses the one mitzvah does the same.
The midrash teaches that just as violating every single mitzvah effectively removes the sacred obligation of the entire tradition, so too does idolatry, by nature of being mutually exclusive with the fundamental basis of the mitzvot, remove the “yoke of Torah”. One commandment – against idolatry – equals all of the commandments taken together.
Rashi bases his comment upon this midrashic text. However, the midrash seems to imply a purposeful transgression. Rashi’s grandson Rashbam adapts the basic idea to help us understand how it still makes sense when someone accidentally gets involved in idolatry.
15:23 EVERYTHING THAT THE LORD HAS ENJOINED UPON YOU: They will [ultimately] end up transgressing all the rules of the Torah inadvertently [after they transgress this one specific commandment]. This is a reference to idolatry. For whoever worships idolatry denies all the commandments. (Trans. Martin Lockshin)
Rashbam’s reworking of the midrash and Rashi teaches that even an accidental encounter with idolatry can lead to accidentally undermining the whole enterprise of Judaism. You might think about Judaism as matter and idolatry as antimatter. The two simply cannot coexist.
For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.