The Eyes of the Community: Vayikra 5774

Can you imagine what it would look like if the Jewish people took collective responsibility for creating a righteous and just society? If instead of a squabbling and loosely organized confederation of miniature camps, we had a truly representative Jewish leadership that held itself accountable to the people and to God? I confess that it is hard to imagine such a scenario, but that counterfactual reality is precisely what our parashah describes in chapter 4.  Verse 13 begins, “If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt….” A ritual of expiation follows, with the elders laying hands on a bull at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and slaughtering it before the community.

I realize that killing cattle in front of a tent would not work so well in our day—our rituals of expiation play out in courtrooms and in the press. Still, we can appreciate the concept that the people and their leaders should not simply admit error and move on, but must act out a ritual so that the divine presence will not depart the camp. Let’s look at how these verses have been understood by Jewish readers, and then think of what would work in our own day.

Midrash Sifra (Vayikra 4:2) understands “the community of Israel” to refer not to all of the people, but to the high court—the Beit Din of 23 sages that in Temple times would occupy the chamber of hewn stone. Mishnah Horayot 1:3 (which deals with errors of judgment by religious leaders), states that the error of these sages could not have been systemic—for example, uprooting an entire category of law such as Shabbat, niddah, or prohibiting idolatry, but rather one of a detail. They base this on a literal reading of the verse (וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר), and also on common sense—if a group of Jewish leaders makes an outrageous claim that abandons a core teaching of the Torah, then the people are expected to recognize the folly of their leaders and abandon them. But if the leaders make a mistake in a detail, such as what is prohibited to carry on Shabbat, and the people follow their ruling, then the leaders themselves are culpable.

Rabbi Isaac Caro (uncle of R’ Joseph Caro of Beit Yosef and Shulhan Arukh fame), notes that the sages of Israel are described as “the eyes of the community”. JTS professor Benjamin Gampel tells me that, “the Sephardim in the Middle Ages institutionalized the concept of עיני העדה through their appointment of “veedores,” literally seers, who were charged with moral/religious oversight over the community and its officials. ” Yet Rabbi Caro also asserts that the entire people of Israel would never consent to a sin. There is an inherent tension in these comments—the people of Israel are often willing to be led by their “eyes”, whether into virtue or into error, but there is some sort of collective resistance to being led off a spiritual cliff. This description resonates with me—religious leaders are trusted up to a point. They have generally arrived at their authority by virtue of great dedication, education, and leadership potential. And yet, the same qualities which equip them to lead can also be their downfall; when authorities become authoritarian and come to think that their education entitles them to act alone, then somehow they will be challenged, and new leaders will have their chance.

The activity of leadership is at its best dialectical—leaders listen before and after speaking, aware that they will of necessity make errors, and eager to learn from their community how to act more effectively in the future. In his Torah commentary Or HaHayim, Rabbi Hayim b. Moshe ibn Attar says that this verse speaks to a moment when the people had not yet been initiated into the covenant, which is why the elders had special responsibility. He says, “each [elder] would speak gently in a fashion that was acceptable to his family, so that they would willingly act [according to the Torah].” Clearly this has not always happened, and the Jewish community has proved more than capable of recognizing irresponsible leadership, and checking authority. This reactive behavior can come across as obstinate and it often does undermine worthy programs, but there is also wisdom in our self-correcting style of communal leadership.

Jewish leaders such as rabbis and cantors must study Torah so that they can represent the vastness of our holy heritage to the people, but equally importantly, they must study the best way to lead. And that requires listening carefully, speaking gently, learning from the public, and redirecting their own thoughts and actions when they come into error. If our leaders were to act in this way, then it would become possible to form much broader coalitions with fellow Jews and with other people of faith. Then the Torah’s descriptions of a people that realizes error and repairs spiritual damage together would become our reality. I have seen many examples of this working; this very week when JTS hosts a broad range of Torah students from the region in our own Beit Midrash will be an opportunity to listen and learn from one another. May this Shabbat be one of teaching and learning, of principled debates and also of reconciliation, so that we can create broader community with each other and with God. Shabbat shalom.

ויקרא פרק ד, יג-טו

וְאִם כָּל־עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל וְעָשׂוּ אַחַת מִכָּל־מִצְוֹת יְקֹוָק אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֵעָשֶׂינָה וְאָשֵׁמוּ: וְנוֹדְעָה הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר חָטְאוּ עָלֶיהָ וְהִקְרִיבוּ הַקָּהָל פַּר בֶּן־בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת וְהֵבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד: וְסָמְכוּ זִקְנֵי הָעֵדָה אֶת־יְדֵיהֶם עַל־רֹאשׁ הַפָּר לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק וְשָׁחַט אֶת־הַפָּר לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק:

ספרא ויקרא – דבורא דחובה פרשה ד

(ב) עדת ישראל יכול בכל העדה הכתוב מדבר תלמוד לומר כאן עדה ולהלן נאמר עדה, מה עדה אמורה להלן ב”ד, אף כאן ב”ד, או מה עדה אמורה להלן בכ”ג אף כאן בכ”ג ת”ל עדת ישראל, העדה המיוחדת שבישראל ואי זו זו זו סנהדרי גדולה היושבת בלשכת הגזית.

משנה מסכת הוריות פרק א משנה ג

הורו בית דין לעקור את כל הגוף אמרו אין נדה בתורה אין שבת בתורה אין עבודה זרה בתורה הרי אלו פטורין הורו לבטל מקצת ולקיים מקצת הרי אלו חייבין כיצד אמרו יש נדה בתורה אבל הבא על שומרת יום כנגד יום פטור יש שבת בתורה אבל המוציא מרשות היחיד לרשות הרבים פטור יש עבודה זרה בתורה אבל המשתחוה פטור הרי אלו חייבין שנאמר (ויקרא ד’) ונעלם דבר דבר ולא כל הגוף:

תולדות יצחק1 ויקרא פרק ד פסוק יג

ואם כל עדת ישראל ישגו ונעלם דבר מעיני הקהל ועשו אחת מכל מצות ה’ אשר לא תעשינה ואשמו ואם כל עדת ישראל ישגו, אלו סנהדרין [ת”כ פרש’ ד ב] שאי אפשר שכל ישראל יסכימו בחטא, ועל כן אמר מעיני העדה [במדבר טו כד], כי הסנהדרין והנביאים והחכמים הם עיני העדה.

אור החיים2 שמות פרק יב פסוק כא (כא) ויקרא משה לכל זקני ישראל. והגם כי ה’ אמר אליו דברו אל כל עדת ישראל, יהיה פירושו כמאמר (ויקרא ד’ י”ג) ואם כל עדת ישראל ישגו שיאמר על הזקנים כמו שמפורש במקומו (בתורת כהנים), ויאמר אליהם יכוין לשאר העם כמשפט כל מצות ה’ לישראל שהיו מפי משה (עירובין נד א): או אפשר שלא אמר אלא לזקנים והם ידברו לכל עדת ישראל, וחלוקה מצוה זו משאר מצות התורה כי עדיין לא נכנסו ישראל בברית ולא הוחנכו להכנס לשמור ולעשות ולזה היה מדבר לזקנים והזקנים כל א’ ידבר בנחת ובדרך המתקבל לבני משפחתו כדי שיהיו נוחים לעשות:

1R. Isaac ben R. Joseph Caro, born in Toledo in 1458, died circa 1535 in Jerusalem. Uncle of R’ Yosef Caro.

2 R. Hayyim b”r Moshe ibn Attar, born in Sali, West Morocco in 1696, died in Jerusalem, 1743.