Parashat Va-yikra

Shabbat Hahodesh

Leviticus 1:1–5:26
March 24, 2012 / 1 Nisan 5772

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Ute Steyer, research and program manager of the Center for Pastoral Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary and adjunct lecturer in Pastoral Theology, JTS.


I'm an avid biker and ride my bicycle everywhere, even in the midst of Manhattan traffic and in Israel. So a friend asked me if I could help his six-year-old son, who was just about to learn how to ride a bike without training wheels, and was a bit afraid of the whole enterprise. The son asked me, "But what if I fall off my bike?" I answered by explaining that his question needed rephrasing: it is not a matter of "'if' I fall off my bike," but "'when' I fall off my bike." Everybody who rides a bike will at one point take a gravity check. It's part of the game.

This difference between "if" and "when" plays a crucial role in Parashat Va-yikra, which describes the various kinds of sacrifices that different people or groups of people have to bring in case of inadvertent wrongdoings (shegaga). The text specifically mentions the High Priest, "the whole community" (in the interpretation of the Talmud this meant the members of the Great Sanhedrin), "the ruler" (nasi), and an ordinary individual. In three cases, the law of sin offering is introduced by the word im (if). However, in the case of the ruler, the law is prefaced by the word asher (when). Just as in English, so too in Hebrew: im and asher are not synonyms.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in his Leviathan that, ultimately, governmental authority rests on "the consent of the governed." Why does the Bible apparently think that these leaders are particularly likely to make mistakes? Consent of the governed is a double-edged sword.

Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (Ran) writes in his Derashot HaRan (11):

''You shall appoint magistrates and officers . . . and they shall judge the people by just law'' (Deut. 16:18) . . . The plain meaning of the text is as follows. It is known that the human species needs magistrates to adjudicate among individuals, for otherwise ''men would eat each other alive'' (Avot 3:2), and humanity would be destroyed. Every nation needs some sort of political organization [yishuv medini] for this purpose, since—as the wise man put it—even ''a gang of thieves will subscribe to justice among themselves.'' . . . Since the king sees that he is not bound to Torah law as the judge is, he must be strongly admonished not to deviate from its commandments ''to the right or to the left'' [nor to] ''act haughtily toward his fellows,'' in view of the great power God has given him.

Kings and other leaders were especially vulnerable to being tempted to act according to popular sentiment; while they could be tempted by the enormous power granted to their office, they at the same time also had to rely on popular support. Even in medieval Europe, kings and queens were often appointed by the votes of councils of the aristocracy, and were just as easily deposed and replaced by others. (If that wasn't possible, a little arsenic in the tea could always solve the problem.)

Modern politics are no different: Being a leader means having to make difficult judgments or being tempted to give in to popular pressure to ensure future support in elections. The very essence of leadership is to make decisions, sometimes on the spot, that will have far-reaching repercussions. Sometimes a leader will be faced with doing things that are deeply unpopular with parts or large segments of his or her people—and that nevertheless seem necessary. Sometimes, only time will tell if certain decisions were right or not. A ruler will make mistakes; the question is not "if," the question is "when." Thus, for a whole series of reasons, a political leader was more exposed to temptation and error than a priest or biblical judge, who weren't answerable to the people.

Starting in the last century, in some ultra-Urthodox, Eastern European circles, it became practice to consult rabbinic leaders on each and every aspect of daily life. So unusual is this that the first Lubavitcher Rabbi, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, wrote in his Baal HaTanya (Iggeret HaKodesh, part 4, ch. 22):

My beloved, my brethren and friends: Out of [my] hidden love [for you springs] an overt rebuke. Come now and let us debate; remember the days of old, consider the years of every generation. Has such a thing ever happened in days past? Where indeed have you found such a custom in any of the books of the early or latter Sages of Israel, that it should be the custom and established norm to ask for advice in mundane matters, as to what one ought to do in matters of the physical world? [Such questions were not asked] even of the greatest of the former Sages of Israel, such as the authors of the Mishnah and the Gemara, from whom no secret was hidden, and for whom all the paths of heaven were clearly illuminated.

One still could explain this as the respect and authority a leader might have, which make people want to consult him or her (and it is mostly a "him" in ultra-Orthodox circles). The more problematic part is the increasing issuance of Torah edicts (Da'as Torah) by councils of Torah Sages concerning every aspect of personal and public life—including choice of music, education, vocation, and voting patterns—prescribing a certain behavior or action and making obedience an issue of emunat hakhamim ("belief in the Sages").

It doesn't stop with Da'as Torah edicts: the members of these councils of Torah Sages are attributed with infallibility: they cannot err because an alleged divine spirit (ruah hakodesh) is resting on them. Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler writes in his Mikhtav mi-Eliyahu:

From his honor's words I see that he holds that all the great scholars of Israel, whose deeds are for the sake of heaven, together with the intellectual giants and mighty ones of righteousness . . . could err completely. God forbid! . . . Whoever witnessed their assemblies . . . was certain that he beheld the divine presence [Shekhinah] in their acts, and that the holy spirit hovered in their gathering. . . . The Rabbis have instructed us to obey the teachings of the hakhamim, even if they say of left that it is right, rather than determine—God forbid—that ''they are certainly mistaken, since I, the tiny one, clearly perceives their mistake.'' Instead, [one should say] ''My perception is insignificant, like the dirt of the earth, in relation to the clarity of their wisdom and their divine support.'' . . . This is da'at torah defined by faith in the sages . . .

The irony is that Da'as Torah causes a threat to the halakhic system that it meant to defend. Halakhic dispute was solved by majority vote, but the minority vote was recorded and considered authentic and valid, even though a different view ultimately became the normative one and was accepted as law. Da'as Torah, on the other hand, not only doesn't engage in an exchange of ideas and debate about the issue in question, but makes all divergent opinions inauthentic and wrong, and suppresses dialogue. Unquestioned submission to authority is raised to the level of a religious value in itself. This indeed constitutes a new quality of debate, or rather lack thereof, and should fall under Moses Sofer's "hehadash assur min hatorah (anything new is forbidden from the Torah)" [Responsa Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim 1:28).

Parashat Va-yikra shows us an approach to leadership that acknowledges the difficult task of leadership. A ruler will occasionally make mistakes, but as long as he or she is subject to honest critique and scrutiny where decisions are constantly measured against the rules of law and the demands of conscience, that is tolerable. What matters is not that leaders never get it wrong, but that they are reminded of ethical standards and ultimate aims. The most important thing from a Torah perspective is for a leader to be sufficiently honest to admit his or her mistakes—hence the significance of the sin offering.

The Gemara in Horayot 10b cites a beraita in the name of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai on "asher nasi yihate" (when a ruler will sin): Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said, "Fortunate (ashrei) is the generation whose ruler brings a sin sacrifice (korban) for a sin he has committed unintentionally."

True leadership, both in the political realm of democratic society as well as in religious communal leadership, demands two kinds of courage: the strength to sometimes take a risk, and the humility to admit a mistake.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.