Vayikra: When a Leader Errs

Each week we invite a different liberal Jewish thought leader or rabbi to write a “Taste of Torah” on the weekly portion. To receive LAASOK’s Taste of Torah by email each week, subscribe to our newsletter.

This week’s author is Dr. Ira Schweitzer.

Dr. Ira Schweitzer has retired from his position of 24 years as Director of Education at Temple Sinai of Toronto. He has authored articles on Jewish texts which have appeared in books by Jewish Lights Publishing, URJ Press, and Ktav. Ira has been on the faculty of the Jewish Information Class and Kolel in Toronto, and has lectured on the topics of Jewish family and Jewish education for Federations across North America.

When a Leader Errs

Leadership is a topic that has always been a source of study and teaching for me.  My past professional endeavours have always drawn me to the topic.  Whether as the Director of NFTY Youth Programs, as the Director of Education for synagogues, or as a consultant for various federations, the need for an understanding of both the qualities of the leader as well as how he/she presents to the community is most important. 

Vayika prescribes different sin offerings depending on who made the mistake.  First is the High Priest, second is “the whole community,” third is the leader (Nasi), and the fourth is an ordinary individual. Three times the Torah’s language is אם (im) – “if” such a person makes a mistake and misses the mark.  Regarding a leader, however, the Torah’s language changes to אשר (asher) “when.”

Leaders have the occupational hazard of making mistakes which are unavoidable. The Torah text therefore is not just wordsmithing when it uses the word “when.”  Those who have power over others can lose and/or misplace their moral compass. The Talmud has many references to the fact that leaders may become arrogant and autocratic.

I am reminded about the many young counselors I have worked with at camp. One university student told a group of his charges that they would need to sit on the wet grass for two hours because they broke curfew. He did not take the time to consider how that may affect his charges. How often do we see our political leaders make poor choices? Here in Canada, we need not look any further than the number of times the ethics committee has reviewed the actions of a Prime Minister. Americans certainly have plenty of examples to point to as well. We have seen rabbis get into trouble using their positions to act inappropriately with congregants. I need not go on.

Vayikra should be the wake up call for us to examine how we lead and what we expect of our leaders. With the current state of the world, we are on the brink of seeing more people killed, cities destroyed, and people’s lives turned upside down. Threats of using nuclear weapons to satisfy the egos of leaders are still on the table. 

Vayikra should be the wake up call for us to examine how we lead and what we expect of our leaders.

– Dr. Ira Schweitzer

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai sums it up. He relates the word אשר (asher – “when”) in the phrase “when a leader sins” to the word אשרי (ashrei – “happy”), and says: Happy is the generation whose leader is willing to bring a sin offering for their mistakes. And I add, admit to them.

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