When a Leader SIns

This Torah portion begins the book’s extensive treatment of the sacrificial system that was practiced in Israel for more than 1000 years. And it is now some 2000 years since we stopped offering sacrifices. In the interim we have developed a sense of distance from that ancient cultic practice. Nevertheless, it may still be possible to derive benefit from studying how the Torah structures its approach to this now defunct array of rituals.

The opening section of our portion deals first with voluntary offerings of celebration and thanksgiving. The Torah takes great pains to make sure that anyone would be able to offer such a free-will gift, creating an income-based scale that included even the poorest person on equal footing with the most powerful and wealthy.

Then the Torah describes other sacrifices that were mandated as expiations for sins committed. It is significant that, before dealing with individual, private citizens, the Torah begins the listing of such sacrifices by obligating the representative leadership of the people, the nation, to offer such sacrifices when and if they sin. Thus, the Torah teaches us an important lesson. It acknowledges that the people and people’s leaders can make mistakes and even sin.

Indeed, when the Torah specifies the case of the nasi – the prince or president of the people – it begins in a unique way. It opens: “When (asher) a nasi shall sin.” (Lev. 4:22) In all other cases of sin offerings the Torah begins with the hypothetical “if.” But not here. Commentators point out that it is as if the Torah were telling us that the sins committed by leaders are not merely a possibility; they are a certainty.

What is not a certainty is whether the leader will admit their sin and seek to atone for it. Bringing a public sin offering requires an admission of error and fallibility that most political leaders would do anything to avoid. But the Torah insists that if individuals are to be expected to seek atonement for their sins, the first step must be taken by the leadership of the people. They must be willing to admit being human. And they must be willing to allow a moral dimension to enter their thinking, so that they can admit that a policy adopted before, with whatever political justification, must be recognized as a sin if it fails to meet basic moral standards.

In order for this to be possible it would be necessary to build a political culture in which such an admission will be acceptable within the political arena. The Torah’s ritual of the sin offering of the nasi does not entail the removal of the leader from office. It does not entail the allowance of others to exploit the admission of sin in order to attack the person. It is with such a culture as the context for the law that the Torah can demand that the leaders will strive to examine and reexamine their actions to evaluate whether they might need to admit to having been wrong.

It is striking, then, that our ancient, seemingly outmoded text still projects an ideal that can serve as a critique of our present reality. At the same time that this set of laws reflects a sacrificial culture that we feel we have transcended, it pictures a political culture that we have barely yet imagined.

Creating such a culture places obligations on the entire society. The Torah insists that individuals can expect their leaders to engage in this process of soul-searching and re-evaluation, but in exchange, it is incumbent upon us to support a social and political environment where such honesty is welcomed and not exploited in bad faith.

Where to start? Perhaps the order of the Torah text can give us some hint of what societal reforms would be needed so that we might live to see the modern equivalent of a morally serious national leadership. We should note that before the sin offerings are mentioned at all, the Torah, in its images of typical Israelites offering their sacrifices, pictures a society of sacred gratitude and generous sharing. The Torah instantiates these values by equally legitimizing the smallest gift along with the most expensive, helping to steer us towards a sense of community and away from partisan division and competition. Such a society would better be able to acknowledge human sinfulness and failure with honesty and humility.

Rashi comments that the opening word of the laws about the leader’s sin offering, asher, calls to mind the word ashrei – how fortunate! He explains: “How fortunate is the generation whose prince gives heart to seeking atonement for his error. And even more so is this true if he repents his purposeful transgressions.”


David Greenstein is the rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, NJ.

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