“The Sins of a Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra introduces the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus. The parasha deals with the sacred offerings that were brought in the Tabernacle and, in later generations, in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The fourth and fifth chapters of Leviticus focus on the Korban Chatat, קָרְבַּן חַטָּאת , the sin offering. Sin offerings achieve atonement for only a very limited category of inadvertent sins. The sins that can be atoned for by the Chatat are those sins for which an intentional transgressor would have been liable to receive the penalty of karet, כָּרֵת , spiritual excision.(see Tzav 5767-2007)

Nachmanides points out that sins that are committed accidentally are generally the result of carelessness. Consequently, inadvertent transgressions blemish the soul, which needs to be purified by sacrifice. Had the transgressor truly valued the Sabbath it would not have been possible for him to have forgotten what day of the week it was. Had the transgressor truly appreciated the laws of kashruth he would not have accidentally eaten the non-kosher food.

It is important to note that each of the four different categories of sinners who are required to bring the Chatat offerings, are introduced in the Torah using slightly different descriptions. In Leviticus 4:3, the Torah writes, אִם הַכֹּהֵן הַמָּשִׁיחַ יֶחֱטָא , If the anointed priest, meaning the Kohen Gadol, sins, bringing guilt upon the people for his sin that he has committed, he must bring a young bull, unblemished, to G-d as a sin offering.

When all the people sin, the Torah in Leviticus 4:13 states, וְאִם כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל , But if the entire assembly of Israel shall err, and a matter became obscured from the eyes of the congregation, and they commit one from among all the commandments of the L-rd that may not be done and they become guilty, they must then bring a young bull as a sin offering, etc.

If an individual alone sins, the Torah in Leviticus 4:2 declares נֶפֶשׁ כִּי תֶחֱטָא בִשְׁגָגָה מִכֹּל מִצְוֺת השׁם אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה, וְעָשָׂה מֵאַחַת מֵהֵנָּה, When a person will sin (unintentionally) from among all the commandments of the L-rd that may not be done, and commits one of them.

When a ruler sins, the Torah in Leviticus 4:22, states אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכָּל מִצְוֺת השׁם אֱ־לֹקָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵׁם When a ruler sins (unintentionally) and commits one from among all the commandments of the L-rd that may not be done and becomes guilty, once it (the sin) becomes known to him, he brings a male goat unblemished.

The rabbis point out the significant differences in the introductions to the different categories of sinners. When the high priest and when the entire community sin, the Torah uses the Hebrew expression “im,” אִם , which is translated to mean “if.” Thus, if the Kohen Hagadol, the High Priest, sins, and if the people of Israel err. After all, mistakes happen.

Regarding the individual, the Torah says, נֶפֶשׁ כִּי תֶחֱטָא , when a person will sin, the word “kee,” כִּי implying that it’s very likely that an individual will sin, as if to say, “when” the soul of an individual sins.

However, when it comes to the leader, a King or prince, the Torah uses the expression, אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא , when a ruler sins. The word “Ah’sher,” אֲשֶׁר , is translated in this instance “when,” but really implies that the leader/prince will definitely sin.

Rabbi Isaac Caro states that due to excessive honor and pride, it is virtually impossible for a ruler or a leader not to sin.

What does this have to do with us today? Sadly, a frequent refrain repeatedly heard in America and in American politics today is that highly-qualified people no longer seek to enter politics or run for public office. It seems to be widely accepted that the experience of being a public servant, and perhaps even the process of becoming a candidate, is one that subjects an individual to undue pressures, making it almost impossible for a good person to remain pure, innocent and incorruptible.

Candidates for public office need to collect huge amounts of money and at the same time avoid undue favoritism to the donors. All sorts of forces, often with nefarious intentions, try to get the ear of the politicians to change policies to favor them. The process itself seems to be corrupting.

The Talmud, in Yoma 22b, even goes so far as to say, אין מעמידין פרנס על הציבור אלא אם כן קופה של שרצים תלויה לו מאחוריו שאם תזוח דעתו עליו אומרין לו חזור לאחוריך , public servants are not appointed by the community unless they carry much negative familial baggage. Perhaps that is why the Talmud in Avot 1:10, says, “Keep far away from authority,” because it’s impossible to remain honest or uncorrupted.

Although democracy seems to be far better than any other system of government, it is far from perfect.

Is the Torah implying that all systems of government are corrupt? The Talmud, in Avot 3:2, urges us to pray for the welfare of the kingdom (government) because without civil order people would eat each other alive.

Perhaps the Torah is advising us, that if the family, the most fundamental building block of society, lacks internal order, then there’s no hope for communal order. Perhaps, the best we as individuals can do to assure that we succeed, is to strive to be as good as we ourselves can be, that our families be firm and solid and that we all live by the Divine values of the Torah. It is only by instilling good values in our families and communities that we can ever hope to have governments that abide by these values.

Unfortunately, the battle for goodness seems to be stacked against us. Much of contemporary life is saturated with sexual exploitation, corruption and violence. It is not at all surprising that children, whose basic entertainment is violent cartoons and violent video games, will eventually become violent.

3300 years ago, the Torah warned us that people in positions of authority and those in positions of leadership, often think that they are above the law and can take advantage of others. These leaders,  princes and kings will invariably sin. It is our responsibility to see that our own values and those of our families are properly communicated and transmitted. It is our hope that our children, the products of these families, will live by these noble values, and perhaps succeed in reshaping the course of human history.

May you be blessed.