When leaders do wrong

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By Bill Dauster

This week’s Torah portion is Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1–5:26.


What do we do when our leaders do wrong? This week’s Torah reading provides some answers. It sets out a series of ways that ancient Israelite society could atone for wrongdoing.

Through these steps, Israelites could expiate guilt and sin. By so doing, the people could help remove from the community the impurity that transgression had caused. And that could help the community to remain in a right relationship with God.

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Reflecting thinking of the time, that system relied on animal sacrifices. For Jews, that system ended when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. But that system still provides important lessons for our time.

The Torah’s system of atonement had specific provisions for when a High Priest sinned, for when the entire congregations sinned and for when a ruler sinned. The Torah provided for when leaders did wrong. The Torah provided procedures that the people could take to ensure that leaders’ wrongs would not disrupt the community’s connection with God.


Notably, the wording differs from one leader to another. Leviticus 4:3 begins, “If the anointed priest shall sin.” Leviticus 4:13 begins, “And if the whole congregation of Israel shall err.” But Leviticus 4:22 begins, “When a ruler sins.” The Torah says not if, but when.

In the Zohar, Rabbi Isaac explained that the reason for the differing language was that it was exceptional for the High Priest to sin, because he felt his responsibility to God, Israel and every individual. Similarly, it was exceptional for the whole congregation to commit one and the same sin, for if some committed it, others probably would not.

But, Rabbi Isaac said, a ruler’s heart is naturally arrogant. Everyone follows what the ruler says. Power goes to the ruler’s head. And, therefore, the ruler is almost certain to sin.

Many scholars date the Zohar to medieval Spain around the year 1300. One can readily understand why Jews of that era might have been skeptical of political leaders. Christian kings were reconquering Spain. Some of them limited synagogues, required Jews to wear badges and prohibited Jews from holding public office.

Many modern scholars argue that scribes committed the book of Leviticus to writing after the Babylonian captivity. One can understand why scribes of that time might have been skeptical of political leaders, too. After all, they had just experienced the catastrophic failure of leadership that had led many Jews to be exiled from their homeland.

But think about how Israelites would have heard the text in the time of Moses. Moses was the only leader they had known. The Torah says: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.” But even in that time of unparalleled leadership, the Torah tells us that people should expect that leaders will make mistakes.

In the Talmud, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai interpreted the first word in Leviticus 4:22, “when” (asher) as if it were the similar-sounding Hebrew word for “fortunate” (ashrei). Rabbi Yochanan said that it is as if we should read this verse to say: “Fortunate is the generation whose leader acknowledges wrongdoing.”

Questions for discussion
Are leaders more likely to make mistakes than other people?
Does the community at large bear responsibility when their leader does wrong?
Is it better for a leader to project confidence or to acknowledge wrongdoing?

Bill Dauster teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn in Washington program and American University’s Washington College of Law.

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