We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom. -Stephen Vincent Benet
The beginning of the Book of Leviticus details a variety of sacrifices that are brought by different people for different sins. Two individuals are singled out in the list of sinners and they are prescribed different sacrifices. One personality is the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest); the other is the King.
The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 4:21 analyses the differences between these two personalities. The Kohen Gadol is the most sacred role in Israel. He and only he is the one with the task, the burden and the great honor of entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. He represents the holiest person, in the holiest place at the holiest time in a unique annual communion with God, that when successful, conveys forgiveness to the entire people of Israel.
In Biblical times, the Kohen Gadol also wore the Urim Ve’tumim, the special breastplate with the twelve precious stones that enabled a very specific but powerful communication between God and the leadership of Israel. The bottom line is that the Kohen Gadol represented the pinnacle of sanctity and closeness to God. Because of this closeness, any sin that the Kohen Gadol committed, even if it was inadvertent, would be considered by the public as purposeful.
The King, on the other hand, was considered all too human. Because of his excess power, it was presumed that he would err more than your average citizen. That is why he was given additional strictures above those of non-Kings, such as the prohibition of accumulating too much wealth, too many horses or too many wives, and his need to carry a Torah scroll on him at all times.
The people, knowing well the King’s likelihood to blunder and to show poor judgment, would know that any sins of his are indeed mistakes and they would be more careful not to imitate such mistakes.
The Meshech Chochma adds that this is the reason why we don’t appoint Kohens as Kings (a reminder of the ultimately catastrophic Hasmonean monarchy – the combination of Kohens and kingship ended in disaster). The Kohen who is meant to be more attuned to divine service will turn away from God because of the royal power he gets. His arrogance will remove his fear of God. And if this Kohen King sins, the people may follow his example, considering him a holy man.
On the other hand, the Meshech Chochma continues, the people likewise can affect their king. When the people sin, the king can very likely be influenced by them and follow in their ways. The converse is likewise true: if the people are good and follow God, the king will be strengthened and encouraged to do the same.
May we never confuse holiness with power.
To all those working on a COVID-19 vaccine and cure.