Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



If the Prince [asher nasi] should sin and inadvertently do against one of the mitzvot of the Lord his God, which should not be done, and be guilty… he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a male without blemish. (Lev. 4:23-24).

The sages were puzzled by the use of the word asher in our text.  The more usual Hebrew word for “if” is im.  Because of this unusual use of words, the Talmud records the following comment:

What does the word asher convey?  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai declared: ‘Happy [ashrei] is the generation whose prince brings a sacrifice for his inadvertent offense.’ “ (Horayot 10b).

 These comments are puzzling.  Would it not have been better for the generation whose leader had never sinned?  That would have been a real blessing.  Several answers to this question have been offered.  Rabbi Menachem David of Amshinov, a great Chasidic teacher, suggests that only a flawed leader is capable of empathizing with the weaknesses of those for whom he is responsible.  Furthermore, a person who is humble enough to ask for forgiveness will forgive others more easily than one who is self-righteous. 

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin provides an even more profound answer to the question in his commentary Oznayim La-Torah.  The inadvertent transgression for which a sin offering was required was the unintentional transgression of a prohibition.  Infractions of this kind always involve actually doing something. In contradistinction, while comatose, one could not possibly be guilty of breaking negative commands.  Conversely, infractions of positive commands necessarily involve the crime of omission, of not doing something.  For example, a person guilty of an infraction of the command to sit in the Sukkah is guilty precisely because he has not sat in the Sukkah.

 Accordingly, the offence of which the Prince is guilty is the action that he has risked taking on behalf of his people.  The more energetic he is, the more he is motivated to serve his constituents, the more initiative he shows in exercising his leadership, the more likely it is that he will inadvertently make mistakes.  On the other hand, there are leaders who are unwilling to risk failure and are guilty of doing too little.  The less one does, the less one is likely to fail.  Therefore, Rabbi Sorotzkin argues, a generation whose leader is active and energetic on its behalf is blessed, even though he may sometimes make unintentional mistakes.  This is the intent of the talmudic comment.

 But Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai may have been teaching an entirely different lesson.  Who was the Prince to whom the text alludes?  Was he the leader of one of the twelve tribes or the person charged with the governance of the entire nation?  Commentators, among them Ibn Ezra, believed that the text was relating to a leader of one of the tribes.  In a lengthy exposition, Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman argues convincingly that the plain meaning of the text is that the Prince in question is the leader of the nation as a whole.  Basing himself on the talmudic exposition on the phrase in our text “the Lord his God” Rabbi Hoffman asks who is that person who is responsible to no authority other than that of God?  Clearly, he answers, it is the King, who under certain circumstances was granted extrajudicial discretion and authority.  In those situations he needed not consult the Sanhedrin nor follow normal judicial procedures.  Precisely because of his enormous power, the King might be tempted to exercise such power frivolously.  Lord Acton was correct.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

 Jewish history is littered with the activity of corrupt kings.  King David engineered the death of a rival in love.  Solomon was guilty of the infraction of multiplying wives and horses.  Ahab stole a poor man’s vineyard.  The list goes on. 

Happy is the generation, therefore, whose leader does not abuse his power, but is contrite and confesses even inadvertent infractions.  The act of bringing a sacrifice made his contrition a public event and was a public declaration of his awareness that he was responsible to God for his failure.

 The contemporary world is embroiled in revolution against absolute rulers who have abused their power for decades.  They have never expressed regret for exploiting their people, imprisoning dissenters and torturing and killing protestors.  Currently such a despot, Moammar Kaddafi, is slaughtering his own people.  The media describe mass protests in North Africa and the Middle East.  They address ongoing killing, imprisonment, censorship and repression in those countries where protest is forcibly stifled.

An illustrative map of the region is often published to indicate the hotspots.  Remarkably, the only country not mentioned in the context of the current reaction to repression and corruption is Israel, so small that it is barely discernable in the printed maps.  Of course there is corruption in the Jewish state, but happy the generation whose leaders are made responsible for their infractions.  In Israel alone has a former President been found guilty of sexual assault and a former Prime Minister of financial wrongdoing.

There is an additional message in our text.  Every family is a micropolis.  Every parent is a leader.  Happy the families whose leaders are humble enough to own their errors of judgment and put them right.  Every community is a micropolis.  Happy the community whose leaders are motivated by service rather than by ego needs, and are ready to own and correct their errors.

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