Vayikra (5768) – The Sins of a Leader

C&C Torah

Sometimes the Torah conveys its most profound ideas by a mere nuance, one that becomes apparent only by attentive listening. In an earlier study we saw how, in the long list of instructions about the making of various articles for the sanctuary, a simple shift in the verb from the second person singular (“you shall make”) to the third person plural (“they shall make”) conveyed one of Judaism’s most glorious ideas – that everyone has a share in the ark, in knowledge and the dignity it conveys. A similar stylistic device figures in this week’s sedra.

The Torah describes the various kinds of sin offering, brought in the case of inadvertent wrongdoing (shegagah). It lists different types of offender: the High Priest, “the whole community” (understood to mean the great Sanhedrin, the supreme court), “the ruler (nasi),” and an ordinary individual. In three cases, the law is introduced by the word im, “if.” In the case of the ruler, however, the law is prefaced by the word asher, “when.” It is possible that a high priest, the community, or an individual may err. But in the case of a ruler, it is probable. When talking about the sin of a nasi, the Torah uses the word “when,” not “if.”

To understand why, we must first clarify what the word nasi signifies. Nasi is the generic word for a ruler, leader, king, judge, elder or prince. It means the holder of political power. The nasi is not a cohen, a mediator between G-d and the people; nor is he a navi, the mouthpiece of G-d to the people and the people to G-d. He is one who guides the affairs of the community, settles disputes and establishes the rule of law. In Mishnaic times, the Nasi (the most famous of whom were leaders from the family of Hillel) had a quasi-governmental role as representative of the Jewish people to the Roman government. The Hatam Sofer in one of his responsa (Orach Chayyim, 12) explains that this is why it passed, like kingship, through dynastic succession, unlike the role of Av Bet Din (and Torah leadership generally) which went to the most able and was not a privilege of birth.

The Jewish people has experienced many forms of political leadership – by elders, judges, kings, community councils and currently, in the State of Israel, by democratically elected government. There are overall constraints within which any form of Judaic government must work. One is the overarching sovereignty of the Torah: the priority of right over might. Any command of a ruler which conflicts with Torah law is ultra vires. Another is accountability to the people. In the phrase adopted by the American Declaration of Independence (a document which owes much to the biblical faith of the American founding fathers), governmental authority rests on “the consent of the governed.”

Why should this type of leadership be particularly prone to error? Sforno cites the verse (Deut. 32: 15) “But Yeshurun waxed fat, and kicked.” Those who have advantages over others, whether of wealth or power, tend to find their consciences dulled. Rabbenu Bachye suggests that rulers tend to become arrogant and haughty. Already in these commentators – it is in fact a central theme of Tenakh as a whole – is the idea later stated by Lord Acton in the aphorism, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There are two other motifs among the commentators. R. Elie Munk, citing the Zohar, points out that the High Priest and the Sanhedrin were in constant touch with the holy. The king or political ruler, by contrast, was involved in secular affairs: war and peace, the administration of government, and international relations. He was more likely to sin because his day to day concerns were not religious but pragmatic.

Meshekh Chokhmah (R. Meir Simcha ha-Cohen of Dvinsk) points out that a king was especially vulnerable to being led astray by popular sentiment. Neither a priest nor a judge in the Sanhedrin were answerable to the people. The king however relied on popular support. Without that he could be deposed. But this is laden with risk. Doing what the people want is not always doing what G-d wants. That, R. Meir Simcha argues, is what led David to order a census (2 Samuel 24), and Zedekiah to ignore the advice of Jeremiah and rebel against the king of Babylon (2 Chronicles 36). Thus, for a whole series of reasons, a political leader is more exposed to temptation and error than a priest or judge.

There is, however, another dimension to political leadership. Politics is inherently an arena of conflict. It deals in matters – specifically the pursuit of wealth or power – that in the short term are zero-sum games. The more I have, the less you have. Seeking to maximise the benefits to myself or my group, I come into conflict with others who seek to maximise benefits to themselves or their group. Politics is the mediation of conflict by justice backed with power. Whatever course a politician takes, it will please some and anger others. From this, there is no escape.

Politics also involves difficult judgements. A leader must balance competing claims, and will sometimes get it wrong. One particularly striking example involved Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam:

Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all the Israelites had gone there to make him king . . . [Jeroboam] and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”
Rehoboam answered, “Go away for three days and then come back to me.” So the people went away.
Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked.
They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”
But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. 9 He asked them, “What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, ‘Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”
The young men who had grown up with him replied, “Tell these people who have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’ — tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’ “
Three days later Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam, as the king had said, “Come back to me in three days.” The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” So the king did not listen to the people . . .

Rehoboam was faced with a dilemma. Solomon had been a wise and successful king, but the people had grown restive. The building of the Temple involved turning Israel into a vast labour camp. His court was expensive and sustained by high taxation. He himself had grown rich, while the people groaned under the burden.

Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s officials, led a rebellion. Solomon sought to put him to death, but he escaped to Egypt, returning after the king died. Rehoboam now had to make a strategic decision. Should he strengthen his authority by a show of power? Or should he win the people over by loosening and lessening their burdens? The senior advisors counselled the second course; the “young turks” argued the opposite, anticipating Machiavelli’s famous rule that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved.

It was the wrong advice, and the result was tragic. The kingdom split in two, the ten northern tribes following Jeroboam, leaving only the southern tribes, generically known as “Judah,” loyal to the king. For Israel as a people in its own land, it was the beginning of the end. Always a small people surrounded by large and powerful empires, it needed unity, high morale and a strong sense of destiny to survive. Divided, it was only a matter of time before both nations, Israel in the north, Judah in the south, fell to other powers.

Rehoboam and Jeroboam were both political animals. Yet a not dissimilar rift occurred at a later era, this time not between rulers but between sages. On three occasions Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi, and Rabbi Joshua, head of the Bet Din, disagreed on matters of halakhah. On each occasion Rabban Gamliel asserted his authority, at the cost of humiliating Rabbi Joshua. The third time was, for the sages, one too many:

Rabban Gamliel remained sitting and expounding, and Rabbi Joshua remained standing, until all the people there began to shout and say to Hutzpith the expounder, Stop!” and he stopped. Then they said, How long is [Rabban Gamliel] to go on insulting him? . . . Come, let us depose him.

Rabban Gamliel was then stripped of office until he had made an act of apology to Rabbi Joshua.

Again the issue was authority versus respect. We do Rabban Gamliel an injustice if we see his high-handed behaviour as simply the mark of an authoritarian personality. The more likely explanation is that he had lived through the last days of the Second Temple period, during which Jewry was fatefully divided between Pharisees and Sadducees and moderates and zealots. The rabbis themselves were divided between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, to the point when it was said that there was a danger of the Torah itself being split into “two Torot.” Rabban Gamliel’s assertion of authority was an honest attempt to avert further fragmentation. Yet it was the wrong policy. The rabbis resented the attempt to curtail debate, and Rabban Gamliel was removed from office.

Two further passages shed light on the hazards of communal leadership. The first is a striking interpretation given by the mishnaic sage, R. Nehemiah, to the verse, “My son, if you have put up security for your neighbour, if you have struck your hand in pledge for another” (Proverbs 6:1)

So long as a man is an associate [i.e. concerned only with personal piety], he need not be concerned with the community and is not punished on account of it. But once a man has been placed at the head and has donned the cloak of office, he may not say: I have to look after my welfare, I am not concerned with the community. Instead, the whole burden of communal affairs rests on him. If he sees a man doing violence to his fellow, or committing a transgression, and does not seek to prevent him, he is punished on account of him, and the holy spirit cries out: “My son, if you have put up security for your neighbour” – meaning, you are responsible for him . . You have entered the gladiatorial arena, and he who enters the arena is either conquered or conquers.

A leader of the community becomes responsible for the failings of the community — at least those he might have prevented. The Talmud puts it simply:

Whoever can prevent the members of his household from sinning and does not, is seized for the sins of his household. If he can prevent his fellow citizens and does not, he is seized for the sins of his fellow citizens. If he can prevent the whole world from sinning, and does not, he is seized for the sins of the whole world.

With power comes responsibility: the greater the power, the greater the responsibility.

There are no rules, there is no textbook, for leadership. Every situation is different and each age brings its own challenges. A ruler, in the best interests of his or her people, may sometimes have to take decisions that a conscientious individual would shrink from doing in private life: waging a war knowing that some will die, levying taxes that will leave some impoverished. In many cases, only after the event will the leader know whether the decision was justified, and it may depend on factors beyond his control.

The Jewish approach to leadership is thus an unusual combination of realism and idealism – realistic in its acknowledgement that leaders inevitably make mistakes; idealistic in its constant subjection of politics to ethics, power to responsibility, pragmatism to the demands of conscience. What matters is not that leaders never get it wrong, but that they are always exposed to prophetic critique and that they constantly study Torah to remind themselves of transcendent standards and ultimate aims. The most important thing from a Torah perspective is that a leader is sufficiently honest to admit his mistakes – hence the significance of the sin offering.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai summed it up with a brilliant double-entendre on the word asher, “When a leader sins.” He relates it to the word ashrei, “happy,” and says:

Happy is the generation whose leader is willing to bring a sin offering for his mistakes.

Leadership demands two kinds of courage: the strength to take a risk, and the humility to admit when a risk fails.

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