When A Leader Transgresses– By Matia Kam*

King David 6th century synagogue in Gaza
King David
6th century synagogue in Gaza

Chapter four in Parshat VaYikra (Leviticus 1-5) picks up a specific sacrifice, the one that is offered when a person (in Hebrew: nefesh) inadvertently transgresses. The chapter begins with the words, “When a person unwittingly incurs guilt”—to speak to what is involved when any person falters without an intention to do so. Interestingly, what follows is not a set of instructions for what any individual should do; instead the text offers a detailed category of people in leadership who offend unintentionally. It focuses on three kinds of leaders, the spiritual (the anointed priest), the judicial court system (known as the Sanhedrin) and the political leader (Nasii, in Hebrew, or king). Only at the end of the chapter does the text come back to discuss the person, in the singular, anyone (in Hebrew: nefesh ahat).

This hierarchical order of turning first to persons in leadership positions draws our attention to the significance that Torah places on the responsibility of leaders toward the people and the community. High positions, the Torah teaches, come with obligations to the people. The focus on leaders here indicates two sets of duties: the first is their role to guide, teach and judge, and the second is their obligation to set an example for proper conduct.

When leaders falter they diminish their own position and cause damage to the people as they lead them on the wrong path. In Hebrew the expression of leaders’ faltering is literally “missing the mark “ (“lehati et hamatarah”) and it gives meaning to the word for transgression (het); the Hebrew makes it easy to grammatically see that the word het which is often translated as sin, is in Jewish tradition understood as missing the mark.

Leaders could miss the mark. “In the case of a leader (king) who transgresses Rabi Yohanan Ben Zakai read the phrase “In the case” (asher, in Hebrew) to indicate that in that case the generation is lucky (asherei, in Hebrew), is praiseworthy since its leader posses the quality to publicly face his unintended guilt by bringing an expiating offering. “There is no righteous person who does only good and never falters.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Therefore said Ben Zakai, “Lucky is the generation that has a leader who recognizes his transgressions and expiates and brings an offering.”

The leader (Nassi) mentioned in the Parsha is the king, “the one who is the first in rank to lead the people”. He is the first to ensure that the law is followed.” At the same time “the position of king does not give him the right to interpret Torah”—since this role has been given to the spiritual and judicial leadership. Like any other individual the leader is subject to the legal system, to the court. “He is the distinct equal among all equals.” The leader has to lead the people in God’s ways, and to be “the first to follow the mitzvot, the first to follow the law.”

While the leader, the king has wide-ranging authority that comes with the position, according to Rabbi Hirsh “he alone is responsible for his transgression for which he is guilty before God, like the least among the people.”

*Translated from the Hebrew by Ayala Emmett