“Do Leaders Corrupt, or are They Corrupted?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we learn of the varied sacrifices and offerings that were brought in the Tabernacle, including burnt offerings, meal offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings.

The first sin offering mentioned is brought by the High Priest who has been elevated to his office through the ceremony of anointment. As the spiritual leader of the people of Israel, the High Priest is responsible for the people’s religious well-being. Before there were rabbis, the priests actually served as the clergy and teachers of Israel. It was their responsibility to study the Torah and to teach it to the people.

The sages of the Talmud, Horayot 7a, conclude that the High Priest’s sin offering is brought only under special circumstances. A Cohen Gadol, a High Priest, brings this sin offering if he makes an error in interpreting the law because it is obscure, and unintentionally sins on account of that error.

In Leviticus 4:3, the Torah tells us, “Eem ha’Cohen ha’Ma’shee’ach yeh’cheh’ta l’ahsh’maht hah’ahm, v’hik’reev ahl chah’tah’toh ah’sher chah’tah, par ben bakar tah’meem la’Hashem l’chah’taht,” If the anointed Cohen will sin, bringing guilt upon the people; for his sin that he committed, he shall offer a young bull, unblemished, to the L-rd, as a sin offering.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz (1909-2001, Lithuanian born Bible scholar), in his comprehensive commentary on Jewish Scripture known as Da’at Sofrim, provides a Talmudic overview of the High Priest’s obligation. Rabbi Rabinowitz explains that when listing the sin offerings, Scripture cites the sin of the anointed priest first, because his sin is more severe than that of all others, since he is closer to G-d and is expected to be far more punctilious in his behavior than a common Jew.

When the verse says that the priest brings guilt upon the people, it underscores that the anointed priest is not a common citizen, and that his misdeeds impact on the spiritual ledger of the people. Citing the Talmudic reference, Rabbi Rabinowitz notes how tragic it is for the people to have a leader who errs and sins.

The fact that the verse states that the anointed priest brings an offering for the sin that he has committed, might lead one to conclude that the offering comes to cleanse the Cohen from his sins, so that he can return to the Tabernacle and resume his holy duties. An old retired priest, on the other hand, who no longer performs the holy duties should not have to bring the offering. The rabbis, nevertheless, deduce from Scripture that even a retired priest who no longer actively serves is still obligated to bring the offerings for his past trespasses, since he was sanctified at birth and that sanctity remains upon him for the duration of his life.

The Talmud also asserts that one might mistakenly conclude that the anointed priest only brings offerings if others sin due to his mistake and instruction. However, this is not the case. An anointed priest brings the offering only if he himself trespassed because of a mistaken interpretation of the law. In fact, if the anointed priest sins together with the community he would not bring his own individual offering, but would join in the common offering that is brought to atone for the community’s trespass.

Among the biblical commentators, there is a rather heated debate about what causes a High Priest to trespass. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) maintains that when a High Priest sins, he brings sin upon all the people, for the people are dependent upon him to atone for them and to pray on their behalf. It is the sinfulness of the High Priest that leads to the people’s guilt, because their leader has not represented them effectively before G-d. Two other major classical commentators disagree with Rashi. The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) and the Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) assert that people of great stature, like a High Priest, do not easily succumb to sin. Consequently, they conclude, it must be the low spiritual level of the people that drags the priest down.

It seems as if the Ibn Ezra and the Sforno subscribe to the well- known contemporary belief that people get the type of leaders that they deserve. Sinful people attract sinful leaders, good people attract good leaders.

There is no question that we are presently experiencing a leadership “black hole.” Hardly a day passes that we do not learn of another leader who is exposed for illicit or immoral acts. The leaders run the gamut: governmental leaders as well as members of the clergy. How tragic it is that in less than one decade, three governors–of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut–were forced to resign for sexual misdeeds, misuse of authority or bribery. The question is, is the crisis of leadership due to the personal shortcomings of the leaders themselves or is the crisis of leadership due to their constituents? It seems as if this ancient debate has still not been resolved.

As I was standing in a synagogue recently, a visitor presented me with a postcard-sized list of the 43 Kings of Judah and Israel. Four kings, Saul, Ishboshet, David and Solomon, ruled over a united Israel. There were an additional 20 Kings of Judah and 19 Kings of Israel who ruled over the divided kingdom. Upon researching the subject, I discovered that more than half of the 43 kings were wicked. But not just wicked, they were idolaters, murderers, adulterers, and child sacrificers. In fact, 9 of the kings were themselves murdered, often by the “king” who succeeded them.

In many ways, we today should be happy that our politicians and religious leaders, venal as they are, are not committing the heinous crimes, sins and trespasses of the ancient kings of Israel.

In direct contradiction to many ancient philosophies and to much of contemporary thought, Judaism believes that, by nature, human beings are essentially evil, and that it takes rigorous efforts to do good. Evil happens automatically, while good always requires a proactive effort.

So, have we become a nation of Sodomites? By some objective standards, perhaps. Because of the incredible advances in technology we have produced weapons with massive destructive capacity that are killing more people than in any time in history. Television and the internet have brought more decadence into the home than in any time in history. It should come then as little surprise that probably 80% of Western society’s entertainment and amusement is based on violence and sex. There is more of that than perhaps at any other time in history.

Are we corrupting our leaders, or are our leaders corrupting us? It seems as if the author of Ecclesiastes 7:20 was absolutely correct when he wrote, “There is no truly righteous person in the land who has not done evil.” A wicked environment reduces its citizens, dehumanizes them, perverting those who seek to be honest, and blinding those who wish to be just.

Perhaps we need to return to the beginning, to circle the wagons and fight back. In ancient times, the priest could bring a public sin offering so that he and the people could start afresh. Unfortunately, our impoverished generation no longer has sacrifices. What offering can we bring to let everyone know that we have gone astray and to ask for help in leading us back on the righteous path?

Woe to the generation that has lost its way. Woe to the generation that has no leaders. In the absence of leaders, we must step up to lead.

May you be blessed.