Parashat Vayikra

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

With many of us glued to the news at a time when we are trying to decide who should be our next leader, it may come as a surprise that this week’s Torah portion, which deals with animal and meal offerings, has what to teach us about leadership qualities.

In chapter 4 of Vayikra the Torah speaks of four individuals or groups who if they sin unintentionally are to bring a hatat (sin) offering. Each of the offerings is described in detail and is somewhat different from the others. The four categories, in accordance with rabbinic tradition, are as follows: the high priest (vv. 3-12), the Sanhedrin (high court) (vv. 13-21), the ruler or king (vv. 22-26), and the individual Israelite (vv. 27-35). Interestingly, three of the categories are introduced by the word im, which means “if” — i.e., if the individual or group will sin, then such and such is the sin offering they are to bring. However, when it comes to the hatat of the king, the Torah uses the term asher, which is usually rendered “when” — when the king sins, then he has to bring a sin offering as described in the Torah.

The plain explanation for why the Torah uses a different conjunction in connection with the hatat of the king is that there is a greater likelihood that the supreme leader will sin more so than it is for the other groups mentioned. For them it is — “if,” but for a ruler who has great power and perceives himself as superior to everyone else, it is not “if” but “when” — for such an individual will almost certainly sin. As the famous adage goes: “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The Rabbis went beyond the plain meaning and connected the word asher with the Hebrew word ashrei, which means “happy.” Thus they read the verse as follows “Happy is [the generation in which] the king admits that he erred and brings a sin offering” (Sifra, Horayot 10b, Rashi). What a lucky generation it is when the highest official acknowledges that he sinned and is humble enough to come to the Tabernacle or Temple in a public venue and offer his animal on the altar. Such a leader will surely act in accordance with the Torah and rules of morality and will not mistreat his subjects.

These are the character traits that we should be looking for in our leaders — the humility to admit, even if it was unintentional and how much more so if it was intentional, that one made a mistake and sinned; and the courage to publicly atone for that error of judgment or action. Can we find these traits in any of our current candidates?

Have a Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as the chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.