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Parashat Vayikra

March 18, 2015

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

In chapter 4 of this week’s Torah reading, we have four categories of people who sinned unknowingly and who have to bring some kind of sin offering (korban hatat) as a result. The Torah describes in some detail the specific animals and manner of offering for these four, who are, in chronological order, (1) the high priest, (2) the entire congregation (interpreted by the Rabbis as referring to the high court or Sanhedrin), (3) the nasi or king, and  (4) the individual.

In each case, save for the third category, the Torah introduces the possibility that one may sin by the word im or ve’im, which means “if.” For the nasi, however, the paragraph is introduced by asher, which can also mean “if.” Indeed the Targum Onkelos translates it with the same word (im) that he uses for the other categories. However the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba, as quoted by Rashi to 4:22) takes note of the different word used by the Torah in the case of the nasi and relates asher to the wordashrei, which means “happy.” The famous teaching that follows is — “Happy is the generation in which its leader is careful to bring a sin offering even for his unintentional sins and how much more so for his intentional ones.”

To elaborate, the Midrash was aware how difficult it is for a leader to admit his or her mistakes. We have so many examples in our own day and age of top officials who engage in all kinds of ignoble behavior and refuse to admit their unethical and even illegal behavior until they have no choice. Happy indeed is the nation whose leaders don’t engage in all kinds of stratagems to hide their misdeeds, but who come forth and acknowledge that they did wrong.

What might make it easier for a leader to come clean if and when he has erred is to realize that a leader is not a perfect human being. All people — and especially people in high positions are prone to sin whether it be because of hubris or greed or power hunger combined with the means to do so. This truism is also alluded to in the use of the word asher, as Sforno points out. This Italian Biblical commentator of the 16th century suggests that asher, unlike im, means “if” in the sense of likely, perhaps better translated as “when.” In other words, “when the nasi sins …”,  for it is inevitable that he will at some point do a wrongful act and will need to bring a sin offering, unlike the other three categories enumerated in the Torah for whom it is not as frequent.

At a time when there is much discussion about leadership or change of leadership in the State of Israel, it is appropriate to think about these matters and choose accordingly. When one knows that “to err is human” and that we are all subject to such imperfection, even and especially leaders, we can more easily admit our iniquities. And relieved  is one who can cleanse himself of sin through such acknowledgment — and happy are the people who have such quality people in leadership posts.

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 chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.