Shabbat VaYikra/HaHodesh 5775: For the Sins of the Leader

If the first two books of Torah can be understood according to their Hebrew names—Bereshit, the book of origins, and Sh’mot, the book of names (or identities), then this week we begin Vayikra, the book of calling. We discover within it a divine calling—to approach the Tent of Meeting, just as Moses did, and to articulate a practice of holiness that structures our individual and communal lives. Leviticus is also known as Torat Kohanim, the instruction for priests, but it addresses all of Israel with its core sections focused on holiness. Even in its opening chapters, which focus on the sacrifices, there is pertinent Torah for all of Israel, wherever and whenever we live.

The primary categories of sacrifice, Olah (burnt), Sh’lamim (whole), and Hattat (purification) each stands for a specific modality of religious life. I think of Olah as the mode of pure devotion in which a person stands in awe at the majesty of creation and offers pure praise to God. As religious people we are called to praise our Creator, holding nothing back, and asking for nothing in return. Sh’lamim is the mode of gratitude for specific benefits of our lives—our health, sustenance and families. There is an implicit request here—we are thanking God, animated by the anxious concern that these blessings may not continue. We offer gratitude as a form of insurance, pleading that wholeness and peace may be our inheritance. 

The Olah is similar in a way to the first section of the Amidah prayer, known as Shevah, or praise, while the Sh’lamim lines up nicely with the closing blessings of the Amidah, known as Hoda’ah, or thanksgiving. This leaves the purification offering, Hattat, which has also been known as the sin offering, to line up with the middle section of the Amidah, known as Bakashah, or request. These offerings do not come from a sensation of wholeness, but rather from yearning for restoration. Something has been broken and lost in our lives, and we yearn to be purified, to once again be whole with God. Although the Temple as a physical reality has been missing for two millennia, these modes of religiosity remain real in our lives. We too feel the need to praise, to offer thanksgiving, and to seek purification of that which is broken in our individual and communal lives. 

Curiously, the parashah’s description of the Hattat or purification offering, which dominates chapter 4, varies in its description of the purification of the chieftain, or Nasi. All other categories of Hattat are described as conditional. “If the priest should sin,” and “if the people should sin.” But with the chieftain, the Torah says, “when the chieftain will sin,” Asher nasi yehetah. In Mishnah Horayot 3:3, we are told that the chieftain here refers to the King, a person who has no higher authority other than God. The Bavli there (10b) preserves a beautiful word play of Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai, based on the word asher (“when”), which could also be read as ashrei, “happy.” He says, “Happy is the generation whose leader brings a sacrifice in recognition of even unwitting mistakes.” Rashi cites this tradition in his Torah commentary and adds, “and all the more so if he regrets his intentional errors.”  

Hasidic teachers note that the first letters of this verse, אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא spell out the Hebrew word אני, or “I.” Rabbi Nathan of Chelm says that “the sins of the chieftain are rooted in the feeling of arrogance—of I.” Thus the purification offering of the chief is not conditional but structural. Simply to attain his or her (but usually his) office, the Nasi must assert his own qualifications. Theirs is not necessarily a hereditary office, and so they must campaign for authority and then assert themselves in order to remain in authority. So, there is no escaping sin, at the very least, the sin of arrogance. And arrogance leads to many other sins as the chieftain uses his power to exalt himself further, crush opposition and forget that God holds him accountable for sin and demands contrition.

Happy is the generation whose leaders are willing to admit error—in public, in humility and in a spirit of contrition. It is obvious in Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai’s statement that such leaders are rare indeed. He lived in a time when angry, arrogant and unyielding Jewish leaders presided over the destruction of Jerusalem and of the holy temple, a trauma from which we have not recovered two millennia later. On this Shabbat Vayikra and HaHodesh, of calling and of renewal of the moon and our hopes for redemption, may a spirit of humility and of contrition enter the hearts of our leaders, both in America and in Israel. Only when they control their lust for power and learn to admit error can they become true leaders of the people and servants of God.

 ויקרא פרק ד, כב-כו 

(כב) אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכָּל־מִצְוֹת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא־ תֵעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵׁם: (כג) אוֹ־הוֹדַע אֵלָיו חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא בָּהּ וְהֵבִיא אֶת־קָרְבָּנוֹ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים זָכָר תָּמִים: (כד) וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ עַל־רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר וְשָׁחַט אֹתוֹ בִּמְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִשְׁחַט אֶת־ הָעֹלָה לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק חַטָּאת הוּא: (כה) וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן מִדַּם הַחַטָּאת בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ וְנָתַן עַל־קַרְנֹת מִזְבַּח הָעֹלָה וְאֶת־דָּמוֹ יִשְׁפֹּךְ אֶל־יְסוֹד מִזְבַּח הָעֹלָה: (כו) וְאֶת־כָּל־חֶלְבּוֹ יַקְטִיר הַמִּזְבֵּחָה כְּחֵלֶב זֶבַח הַשְּׁלָמִים וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן מֵחַטָּאתוֹ וְנִסְלַח לוֹ: 

משנה מסכת הוריות פרק ג משנה ג 

ואיזהו הנשיא זה המלך שנאמר (ויקרא ד’) ועשה אחת מכל מצות ה’ אלהיו נשיא שאין על גביו אלא ה’ אלהיו:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת הוריות דף י עמוד ב 

ת”ר: אשר נשיא יחטא – אמר ריב”ז: אשרי הדור שהנשיא שלו מביא קרבן על שגגתו,  

רש”י ויקרא פרק ד פסוק כב 

(כב) אשר נשיא יחטא – לשון אשרי, אשרי הדור שהנשיא שלו נותן לב להביא כפרה על שגגתו, קל וחומר שמתחרט על זדונותיו:

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