We do not speak the vernacular of sacrifices. In ancient times, when nearly every society had a rich tradition of sacrifices, I think people had a comfortable understanding of the meaning of each kind of sacrifice. Now, even great experts know sacrifices as a second language, a learned vernacular, that never feels entirely fluent.
Nonetheless, even if we do not understand sacrifices fluently, we can recognize patterns, the way we can recognize words and patterns in a speech in a foreign language.
Look, for example, at the series of sacrifices under the heading of hatat, sin offerings, as the beginning of chapter 4 of Vayikra (Leviticus).
When the anointed Cohen sins negligently, through inadvertence or by not paying careful enough attention, and does what he is commanded not to do, and then becomes aware of his sin, he brings a special sin offering of the Cohen Gadol the High Priest. He brings a bull for this sacrifice, and lays his hands on the head of the bull.
When the entire community of Israel sins, misses the mark, falls short of its duty, and does one of those commandments which we are commanded not to do, we bring our sacrifice, also a bull. The elders of the congregation lay their hands on the head of the bull.
How can the entire congregation of Israel sin? What kind of sin does involves the entire congregation? The rabbis of the Talmud, perhaps taking their cue from the verse that specifies that the elders lay their hands on the head of the bull, explain that this occurs when the high court, the Sanhedrin, issues an erroneous ruling that the congregation follows. When the members of the high court realize their error, they must bring a bull as a sacrifice. They earn forgiveness by this sacrifice.
Apparently the high court, the Beit Din HaGadol, can err. Not only can the greatest individual scholars err, but the collective of the greatest scholars and religious leaders can put their heads together and get it wrong. Even the Beit Din HaGadol is not infallible.
The Talmud discusses corollaries of this sacrifice. What if an ordinary member of the house of Israel, not a great scholar, followed the erroneous ruling of the court? He or she is absolved of guilt, because an ordinary person should follow the rulings of the court. What if a great scholar, who sat on the court, or who was worthy to sit on the court, knew better but nonetheless followed their erroneous ruling? He is not absolved of guilt, because he knew better.
My younger colleague, and yet my teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, while he was yet a student, wrote a paper in which he drew out the implications of this discussion.[i] The zaken mamre,[ii] the rebellious elder could be a tragic hero. We often imagine the rebellious elder as taking unwarranted liberties with the wise High Court; Rabbi Klapper notes that he elder might be right, and the court in error, and yet the court might have the authority to put the elder to death for his rebellion.
Not all the rabbis responded to Rabbi Klapper’s insight favorably, or greeted its publication warmly, though it seems clear that Rabbi Klapper is right.
In the next case, Torah presents the sin offering for the Nasi, the political and military head of the nation (and perhaps also for the political and military heads of the tribes). If he sins through inadvertence, and then becomes aware of his sin, he too must bring an animal sacrifice. His sacrifice is a male goat.
Though I do not have a visceral knowledge of the symbolic meaning of sacrifices, I can recognize a pattern. As a sin offering, the political and military leader brings a mere goat, not a huge bull, such as the Sanhedrin or the Cohen Gadol would bring. Why does the political leader have a less expensive, less impressive, sacrifice?
Perhaps an error on the part of the political leader injures the public less violently than an error on the part of the spiritual and moral leaders. The Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, in Torah takes the lead in rituals. In the works of the prophets, the High Priest teaches the word of God: “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, And they should seek the law at his mouth; For he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 2:7).
Perhaps it injures a society more severely when the moral leadership and judicial leadership goes astray than when the political or military leadership goes astray.
Or perhaps it is inevitable that the king will err, so the Torah gives him a less expensive sacrifice.
Finally, we read that when an ordinary member of the house of Israel sins through inadvertence, he or she brings a sacrifice, in this instance, a female goat or sheep. Now it seems to me obvious that the female goat or sheep costs more even than the male goat brought by the king. Surprisingly, the sin offering of an ordinary person exceeds the sin offering of the king in value. Something strange is at work here.
Perhaps indeed the Torah wants us to understand that our political and military leaders must often fall short of the goal.
Another piece of evidence: the presentation of the sin-offering of the High Priest, the high court, and the ordinary person, begins with the word, “v’im” = “and if.” “If the High Priest sins,” and “if the whole community of Israel sins,” and so on. The sin offering of the king begins “asher” = “when.” “When the king sins.” The sin of the king does not appear as an “if,” but as a “when.” It will happen.
The sages, though, make a pun on that word “asher” = “happy.” Happy are the people whose king admits to an inadvertent sin (Rashi ad loc). Happy are the people whose political and military leader admits to his faults and failures. Some political and military leaders do not. How sad for their people.
This passage is all about infallibility. Our political and military leaders, as hard as it may be for them to admit this, are not infallible. The High Priest was not infallible. Each member of the Sanhedrin was not infallible. The collectivity of the great sages of Israel, as they deliberated together in solemn assembly, was still not infallible. Modern rabbis, however wise, have the capacity to err. Happy are the people whose leaders acknowledge their fallibility.
[i] “Ha-Zaken ha-Mamre keGibbor ha-Masoret” Beit Yitshak 26 (1994), available at: http://www.torahleadership.org/ lectures.html#talmud, under the heading “Talmud.” Iv.
[ii] Devarim 17:8-13, discussed in Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:1 and Talmud ad loc.
 “Ha-Zaken ha-Mamre keGibbor ha-Masoret” Beit Yitshak 26 (1994), available at: http://www.torahleadership.org/ lectures.html#talmud, under the heading “Talmud.” Iv.
 Devarim 17:8-13, discussed in Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:1 and Talmud ad loc.