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September 1, 2015 / 17 Elul, 5775
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The Sins of a Leader

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

A private individual is responsible only for his own sins. A leader is held responsible for the sins of the people he leads – at least those he might have prevented (see Shabbat 54b). With power comes responsibility: the greater the power, the greater the responsibility.

There are no universal rules nor is there any failsafe textbook for leadership. Every situation is different and each age brings its own challenges. A ruler, in the best interests of his or her people, may sometimes have to take decisions that a conscientious individual would shrink from doing in private life. He may have to decide to wage a war, knowing that some will die. He may have to levy taxes, knowing that this will leave some impoverished. Only after the event will the leader know whether the decision was justified, and it may depend on factors beyond his control.

The Jewish approach to leadership is thus an unusual combination of realism and idealism – realism in its acknowledgement that leaders inevitably make mistakes, idealism in its constant subordination of politics to ethics, power to responsibility, pragmatism to the demands of conscience. What matters is not that leaders never get it wrong – that is inevitable, given the nature of leadership – but that they are always exposed to prophetic critique and that they constantly study Torah to remind themselves of transcendent standards and ultimate aims. The most important thing from a Torah perspective is that a leader is sufficiently honest to admit his mistakes; hence the significance of the sin offering.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (Tosefta Baba Kamma, 7: 5) summed it up with a brilliant double entendre on the word “asher” – when a leader sins. He relates it to the word “ashrei” – happy, and says this: “Happy is the generation whose leader is willing to bring a sin offering for his mistakes.”

Leadership demands two kinds of courage: the strength to take a risk, and the humility to admit when a risk fails.

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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