This week we begin reading the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. It discusses the laws of animal and meal sacrifices in the Tabernacle and the Temple. Chapter 4 teaches the laws of sin offerings, the atonement sacrifice for negligent violations of Biblical prohibitions. The chapter covers details of those offerings and lists the categories of people who must bring the sacrifices.
Chapter 4 mentions, as one class, the highest officials of the Jewish people. Verse 3 cites “the anointed priest.” This refers to the High Priest, whose investiture (until the last decades of the First Temple) included anointment. Verse 13 lists “the Nation” collectively sinning negligently. Rashi interprets the passage to refer to a Sanhedrin (High Court) that, through negligent ignorance of the law, issued an erroneous ruling. The court led the people astray.
Verse 22 covers “the ruler” who sins. All three verses encompass the civil and religious authorities of the Land of Israel: the courts (Torah), the priesthood, and the monarchy. (The Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers 4:13, calls these the “three crowns.”)
However, the text uses different wording in describing the ruler who sins. With respect to the High Priest, the text reads, “If [he] shall sin…” Concerning the Sanhedrin, the Torah states, “If [they] shall err... and fail to perform one of the [negative commandments]…” Both instances employ the conditional “if.” Regarding the ruler, in contrast, the narrative says, “When [he] shall sin…” (emphasis added).
The Torah makes a definitive statement that the head of state will behave negligently. In addition, to express “when,” the Torah uses the word אשר, rather than the more common כאשר.
Rashi opines that the Torah intends to connote אשרי, which means fortunate or happy. He interprets the passage: “Fortunate is the generation whose ruler sets his heart to bring an atonement [sacrifice] for his sins of negligence.” The ruler who happens to sin acknowledges his error and remedies his shortcoming.
The commentator Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550) reads verse 22 literally. It states a fact — the ruler will sin. Sforno writes, “Indeed, it is the prevalent situation that a ruler sins, as [the Torah] states ‘And Jeshurun became fat and kicked’ [Deuteronomy 32:15].” Sforno means that the wealth and power a ruler accumulates tempt him to sin and he succumbs.
History bears this out. Kingship in Biblical times carried with it 30 prerogatives (Ethics of the Fathers 6:6), which included the power to confiscate private property for public use. King Ahab of the northern Kingdom of Israel abused that power to requisition for himself the vineyard of Nabot, for example (1 Kings 21). In contrast, the High Priest’s humility results from the fact that farmers decide which priest will receive terumah (the share of grain, wine and oil production that goes to the priests). The need to find favor keeps the High Priest humble. Judges learn humility from the fact that they become personally liable for a mistaken verdict in monetary matters.
In my opinion, the Torah speaks of the ruler sinning — the transgression is a means by which he acquires humility.
The Talmud (Yoma 22b) discusses why Saul, the first king of Israel, lost his kingdom for himself and his progeny, while his successor, King David, founded the royal house of Israel and his legacy lives forever.
Tractate Yoma interprets the verse, “King Saul was a year old when he became king” (1 Samuel 13:1) figuratively. Saul had not sinned, just as a year-old baby is innocent. Because he had never transgressed in his life, King Saul put himself above the law. The Prophet Samuel rebuked him for disregarding G-d’s directives in fighting Amalek, such as sparing the life of Agag, the king (1 Samuel 15). Saul justified his actions and did not admit his errors in judgement.
The Talmud states that King David, on the other hand, behaved with humility. He was the youngest son of Jesse. His father dispatched him to watch the flock when Samuel visited to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king. Jesse did not regard him as a candidate. He thought his other sons were deserving. However, G-d chose David.
When his newborn son died, the king reflected on his actions, understood that the tragedy occurred on his account, admitted his mistakes, and asked for forgiveness. The Talmud states that King David, therefore, enjoyed G-d’s favor and his dynasty endures.
The Torah teaches us that people in positions of authority must remain humble at all times. The idea of an infallible flesh-and-blood leader runs contrary to Judaism. However, humility does not entail a lack of self-esteem. Rather, it requires us to realize our accountability to a Higher Authority, be honest when we err, and seek forgiveness.
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Kemp Mill, Maryland, and former gabbai of the main minyan at YISE and at Kesher Israel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues, and has served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both synagogues as well. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.