How often do countries admit they were wrong as a country? How often does a religion admit it was mistaken as a religion? How often does an entire family admit they have made a grave mistake? Not usually, or not at all. One of the most admirable passages in Judaism can be found in this week’s Parasha. The Torah tells us there can be a situation when everyone was wrong. After telling us about the Korban — the sacrifice — an individual needs to bring to the Tabernacle in case of sinning, the Torah tells us:
“And if the entire congregation of Israel errs because a matter was hidden from the eyes of the congregation, and they commit one of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, incurring guilt; When the sin which they had committed becomes known, the congregation shall bring a young bull as a sin offering. They shall bring it before the Tent of Meeting. The elders of the community shall lean their hands [forcefully] upon the bull’s head, before the Lord, and one shall slaughter the bull before the Lord.
Is this good or bad? Does this mean Judaism sees its followers as more likely to sin than others? Perhaps the kind of blind sinning we have seen the Jews succumb to during the sin of the golden calf. The rabbis did not see it this way.
The great rabbis of the Talmud state (Sifra, Vayikra, 4)
“the congregation of Israel”: I might think the entire congregation is being referred to; it is, therefore, written here “congregation” and elsewhere (Numbers 35:24 and Numbers 35:25) “congregation.” Just as a “congregation” there refers to beth-din, so, “congregation” here refers to beth-din. If so, I might think that just as “congregation” there refers to (a beth-din of) twenty-three, so, “congregation” here. It is, therefore, written: “the congregation of Israel.” — the congregation which is “distinctive” in Israel. Which one is that? The Great Sanhedrin”
According to the Sifra, we are not talking about of “bottom-up” sinning situation. We are talking about a situation in which the sin trickled down. The highest rabbinic authority possible rules that something is permitted, everyone else follows their lead. Then it turns out they were wrong.
Why would the Torah describes the sins of the leaders and the sin of the community, in the same terms? Are they not separate entities?
Rabbi Hayim Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar(1696-1743) in his magnum opus Ohr Hachayim, sees in this a testimony to the symbiotic relationship between the community and it’s leaders; a relationship that cannot be denied.
Mistakes can happen, they can happen on the highest level.
The Torah does not stop at the possibility that the high court—Sanhedrin Hagdolah—can sin, it continues:
“If a leader [of Israel] sins and unintentionally commits one of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, incurring guilt; if his sin that he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring his offering: an unblemished male goat.”
While these words may sound simple to us, they would send a chill through the spine of monarchs, dictators, and rulers throughout the generations.
“If a leader sins,” a leader can sin. No one is above God’s word. No one is above the law.
The Talmud teaches:
“The Sages taught: The verse states concerning a king: “When [asher] a king sins” (Leviticus 4:22). Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said: Happy [ashrei] is the generation whose king feels the need to bring an offering for his unwitting transgression.
If the generation’s king brings an offering, you must say all the more so what a commoner will do to atone for his sin, i.e., he will certainly bring an offering. And if the king brings an offering for his unwitting transgression, you must say all the more so what he will do to atone for his intentional transgression, i.e., he will certainly repent.”
The virtues of transparency cannot be overstated. And yet, we are seeing a generational decline in shame and openness. As Lord Jonathan Sacks points out, when you live in a society that is unforgiving and shaming, only the most shameless can survive. When there is forgiveness, there can be transparency.
We live in a generation where we have communal expectations of perfection. This stifles the prospect of transparent and effective leadership. If leaders cannot be wrong, they cannot correct their mistakes. The Torah teaches us a powerful lesson: everyone can be wrong. Even the Sanhedrin, even the king. If you live in a generation in which the king can admit mistakes, more commoners will be able to admit mistakes. if the king can atone for accidental transgressions, surely they will be able to correct things they have done on purpose and now recognize as mistakes. If our leaders have the space to acknowledge they are wrong, then we too will be able to admit we are wrong and take corrective actions.
One of the most moving studies on this was published in the Harvard Business Review. Hospitals in which nurses feel comfortable telling their supervisor: “I made a really bad mistake”, have much lower mortality rates than hospitals where nurses never say they made a mistake. This is what the Torah is teaching us this week. If we can believe—and forgive—our leaders for making mistakes, they are more likely to admit their mistakes. Sometimes, the more mistakes admitted, the better.
Parashat Vayikra is one of the most fundamental Parshas in Jewish life. It recognizes the human tendency to err, and the need to create space for mistakes. No one is spared from this human capacity: Sanhedrin, kings, High Priests, and simple Jews. We all make mistakes. The more we recognize our natural propensity to err, the more we recognize our most celebrated leaders’ ability to make mistakes, the more likely we are to have those mistakes corrected.