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Parenting from the Parsha: Parshat Vayikra – Admitting Our Mistakes

In this week’s parsha we enter the world of Korbanot. The Torah describes various categories of sin, and the resulting korban that must be brought to atone for each type of sin.

One scenario described by the Torah is the case of a Nasi, a leader of Am Yisrael, who commits a sin and then becomes aware of his transgression. The Torah outlines the particular korban that must be brought to atone for this sin. Although the sin was committed by only one individual, his status as a leader of the community makes the transgression a community matter- and therefore a communal korban must be brought as atonement.

The commentaries note the peculiar language the passuk uses to describe this event.  In place of the standard “im nasi yecheta”, which would translate as “if a nasi will sin”, the Torah says, “asher nasi yecheta”, “that a nasi sins”. Why the shift in language specifically here?

Sforno explains that the change in language- the wording of “that” as opposed to “if” comes to teach us that it is inevitable that a leader will sin. Leaders are human beings as well- being in a position of authority or influence does not cause them to be free of the same temptations and impulses that we all have. In fact, the challenges and temptations are often even greater for those in a position of authority- and the reality of sinning is therefore inevitable.

Rashi, however, gives a different explanation. He quotes a Midrash that plays on the passuk’s opening word, “asher”- “that”. The Midrash says, “fortunate  (ashrei) is the generation whose Nasi notices when he makes a mistake, and makes sure to bring a korban to atone for his mistakes; kal vachomer, how much more so, a leader who regrets the sins that he commits purposefully”.

The Midrash’s comment here is quite striking. The language of “fortunate is one who…” implies that it is unusual for a leader to notice his mistake and/or to admit it.  Yet as we noted earlier from the Sforno, it is inevitable that every communal leader will make a mistake, will commit a sin. So why is it so rare for such a leader to notice and admit his mistakes?

I believe that the answer to this question is based on two factors.  Firstly, human beings in general have trouble admitting when they make a mistake, or that they are wrong. Part of our inherent makeup is a desire to be good, and to present ourselves in a positive way. Whenever possible, we would prefer to avoid noticing, and calling attention to, any of our missteps. Yet we often face moments when we cannot ignore the obvious- when circumstances or people around us force us to face reality and “own up” to our mistakes. Given a Nasi’s position of power, however, he will be given more leeway to ignore his mistakes, as those around him will hesitate to criticize or critique their leader. He will therefore be more successful at ignoring- either consciously or unconsciously – his sins and mistakes.

Additionally, people in position of authority- particularly community leaders- have an image to uphold. Communities hold their leaders to higher standards- unfair as that might be- and said leaders often feel pressure to live up to those standards, or to at least appear to publicly. Sometimes these leaders will do anything to present a façade of perfection, and hide any imperfection or faults that they may have. We are all well aware of examples of this phenomenon in our communities.

It is for that reason that the Midrash states that any community whose leader notices and admits to his mistakes is extremely fortunate. It is rare to find a leader who is so comfortable with himself and his leadership abilities that he not only overcomes the natural inclination to ignore/deny mistakes but does so in a position of leadership. Such a leader recognizes that everyone makes mistakes, and that a person’s true greatness comes from his ability to learn, and grow, from his mistakes or past iniquities.

As parents, whether we realize it consciously or not, we are in a position of authority and leadership vis a vis our children. Often, that reality creates certain expectations that our kids have for us, and that we have for ourselves. When our kids are very young, we parents are perfect to them- we can do everything, are the best at everything, and can make no mistakes.  As our kids grow older, they begin to realize that we are human, and not as perfect as they thought. Yet, even then, we often try to present a flawless image to our kids. Our position as an authority, combined with our desire to be someone that our children look up to, often causes us to work hard at presenting ourselves to our children in a particular way. We focus more on our successes and positive attributes and are less willing to admit past mistakes or errors. Particularly when we argue or have a disagreement with our kids- we will almost never admit that we were wrong, even if we internally realize our mistake.

And yet when we act in this way, we are only hurting ourselves and our ability to properly educate our children. Our children need to grow up with a realistic picture of their parents, leaders, and role models. They need to understand that all parents, and all leaders, are human, just like them- and they therefore make mistakes, just like them. Such an understanding makes it easier for them to relate to their role models, and to learn from them.

In addition, in the realm of child-rearing, children need to learn that their parents are trying their best to raise them correctly, but that sometimes there will be mistakes made along the way. And that is okay. The best thing that we can do as parents is to model for our children how to admit our mistakes, and then how to learn from them

“To err is human…”. In this week’s parsha, the Torah and Midrash highlight how hard, and therefore rare, it is for a communal leader to admit his faults and mistakes. This is true in all positions of authority- parenthood included. The more that we can be aware of this pitfall, the more realistic and honest we can be in how we present ourselves to our kids- and the more prepared for real life our children will be.

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Rav Yossi Goldin is a teacher and administrator who teaches in a number of seminaries and Yeshivot across Israel. He currently lives in Shaalvim with his wife and family. He can be reached at yossigoldin@gmail.com.
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