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March 31, 2015 / 11 Nisan, 5775
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The Sins of a Leader

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Leaders make mistakes. That is inevitable. So, strikingly, Parshas Vayikra implies. The real issue is how he or she responds to those mistakes.

The Torah makes this point in a very subtle way. Our parshah deals with sin offerings to be brought when people have made mistakes. The technical term for this is “shegagah,” meaning inadvertent wrongdoing. You did something, not knowing it was forbidden, either because you forgot or did not know the law, or because you were unaware of certain facts. You may, for instance, have carried something in a public place on Shabbat, either because you did not know it was forbidden to carry or because you forgot it was Shabbat.

The Torah prescribes different sin offerings, depending on who made the mistake. It enumerates four categories. First is the high priest, second is “the whole community” (understood to mean the great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court), a third is “the leader” (nasi), and the fourth is an ordinary individual.

In three of the four cases, the law is introduced by the word “im” (if) – if such a person commits a sin. In the case of the leader, however, the law is prefaced by the word “asher” (when). It is possible that a high priest, the Supreme Court or an individual may err. But in the case of a leader, it is probable or even certain. Leaders make mistakes. It is the occupational hazard of their role. Talking about the sin of a nasi, the Torah uses the word “when,” not “if.”

Nasi is the generic word for a leader: a ruler, king, judge, elder, or prince. Usually it refers to the holder of political power. In Mishnaic times, the nasi, the most famous of whom were leaders from the family of Hillel, had a quasi-governmental role as representative of the Jewish people to the Roman government. Rabbi Moses Sofer (Bratislava, 1762-1839), in one of his responses, examines the question of why, when positions of Torah leadership are never dynastic (passed from father to son), the role of nasi was an exception. Often it did pass from father to son. The answer he gives (and it is historically insightful) is that with the decline of monarchy in the Second Temple period and thereafter, the nasi took on many of the roles of a king. His role, internally and externally, was as much political and diplomatic as religious. That in general is what is meant by the word “nasi.”

Why does the Torah consider this type of leadership particularly prone to error? The commentators offer three possible explanations. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno cites the phrase “But Yeshurun waxed fat, and kicked” (Deuteronomy 32:15). Those who have advantages over others, whether of wealth or power, can lose their moral sense. Rabbeinu Bachya agrees, suggesting that rulers tend to become haughty. Implicit in these commentators – it is in fact a major theme of Tanach as a whole – is the idea later stated by Lord Acton in the aphorism, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Rabbi Elie Munk, citing the Zohar, offers a second explanation. The high priest and the Sanhedrin were in constant contact with the holy. They lived in a world of ideals. The king or political ruler, by contrast, was involved in secular affairs: war and peace, the administration of government, and international relations. He was more likely to sin because his day-to-day concerns were not religious but pragmatic.

Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk points out that a king was especially vulnerable to being led astray by popular sentiment. Neither a priest nor a judge in the Sanhedrin were answerable to the people. The king, however, relied on popular support. Without that he could be deposed. But this is laden with risk. Doing what the people want is not always doing what God wants. That, Rabbi Meir Simcha argues, is what led David to order a census (II Samuel: 24), and Zedekiah to ignore the advice of Jeremiah and rebel against the king of Babylon (II Chronicles: 36). Thus, for a whole series of reasons, a political leader is more exposed to temptation and error than a priest or judge.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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