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16.03.2016 16:15    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashat vayikra  

"The Blame Falls Upon the People"



Numerous sources, both early and late, indicate the extreme gravity of sins committed by people in high places.  Thus the Sages interpreted a verse of David's in Psalms (50:3):  "It stormed around him fiercely – this indicates that the Holy One, blessed be He, is extremely exacting of his righteous followers, down to the finest hair" (Yebamot 121b and Bava Kama 50a).  Thus the Sages also explained the severe punishment meted out to Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion in the book of Ruth:  "Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says:  Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion were eminent men of their times, great philanthropists of their generation.  So why were they punished?  Because they left the land of Israel and went abroad."  Following this, Maimonides ruled (Hilkhot Melakhim u-Milkhamoteihem 5.9):  "It is forbidden to live abroad, unless the famine there is great…  Even though it is permitted to leave, doing so is not considered devout, for Mahlon and Chilion were two important men of their times, and they left because of great hardship, yet the almighty found them deserving of being wiped out."  Similarly, Rashi wrote of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:3):

"This is what the Lord meant when He said" – where are these words of the Lord written?  "And there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence [Heb. bi-khvodi]" (Ex. 29:43).  Do not read "by My Presence," rather:  by those who are my honored ones [bimkhubaday].  Moses said to Aaron:  Aaron, my brother, I knew that the Sanctuary would be sanctified by those close to the Omnipresent, and I thought that meant either myself or you;  now I see that they were greater than me or you.

Many later rabbinic authorities have written about the topic.[1]

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that many commentators incorporated this statement of values in their commentaries, in order to resolve difficulties of biblical interpretation.  Nahmanides asked (Lev. 4:2) why Scripture does not say of a sin committed by the high priest, "The priest shall make expiation on his behalf … and he shall be forgiven," as it does for the rest of the sacrifices. He answers:  "Perhaps because of his elevated status he is not entirely forgiven until after he prays and entreats his G-d, for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts and must be entirely pure and blameless."[2] Nahmanides clearly holds that personal greatness and position demand higher standards and therefore that which can bring expiation for others does not suffice for the High Priest.  Kli Yakar follows Nahmanides' lead,[3] and clearly states the moral lesson that we are to deduce from this:  "It is a warning to great rabbis and leaders to be extra careful in their own deeds, for a deliberate transgression can result from an unwitting error,[4] for when the leader sins unwittingly, whatever he did is seen and deliberately followed by others who are unaware that the leader's act was an unwitting transgression.

Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh (Torat Moshe on this verse) followed a similar route to resolve the question why the High Priest must bring "a bull of the herd … and not a female offering."  It is for the simple reason that "his unwitting offense is grave," when he does not reprove and warn the people properly:  "His sin is greater than that of an individual who transgresses unwittingly, for the sins of the general populace devolve from it."  The same applies to a chieftain:  "As for a chieftain who, as it were, holds an axe in his hand (with which to control the people), any sin he commits must be considered graver than a sin committed by a regular person; therefore he must offer a male goat."  Likewise, paying close attention to the wording of the Torah, the Netziv noted in Ha`amek Davar (Lev. 4:8,22,26) that Scripture says regarding a chieftain who sins, "All its fat he shall offer up on the altar," whereas that is not said regarding the sin-offering of the high priest and the Sanhedrin, of whom its says, "he shall remove [Heb. yarim] the fat", and likewise of the commoner, of whom it says, "he shall remove [Heb. yasir]" (Lev. 4:31, 35).  This is for the simple reason that "the office of chieftain causes the sins that are committed to be very grave … A chieftain's status is most elevated, and his sins weigh most heavily…  Therefore eating the sin offering does not make expiation for previous sins, and the suet has to be offered up on the altar."[5]

To sum up, according to this approach, the higher a person's status and the greater his influence, the more grave are his sins; hence the different treatments required for sin offerings.

"This would not have happened, were it not for the sinfulness of the generation"

For all the importance and prevalence of the school of opinion presented above, there exists another school that goes in the opposite direction and, as surprising as it may seem, holds that the sin of an important person is actually considered less grave.


In Guide for the Perplexed (3.46), Maimonides states the general rule:  "The greater the sin which a person had committed, the lower was the species from which the sin-offering was brought."  He provides several illustrations, one of which touches on the matter at hand:  "The high priest and the Synhedrion, who only gave a wrong decision in error, but have not actually committed a sin, brought a bull for their sin-offering."[6] In other words, the fact that the high priest brings a bull, an offering which is of a higher level than the he-goat brought by the common person, indicates that the weight of the high priest's sin is actually considered less than the weight of the comparable sin by the common person!

Why is the sin of an important person considered less grave than the sin of the commoner?  R. Ovadiah Sforno's approach (see Lev. 4:3) can shed some light on the question.  Sforno places a considerable amount of the responsibility for the sin of the high-placed person on the community.

For an unwitting sin would not be committed by him [the high priest] were he not tripped up by the people, as in the saying, "If a person makes a mistake in his prayers, it portends ill for him; and if the public leader makes a mistake, it portends ill for those who chose him to lead them."[7] … Therefore it did not say of him, "and he realizes his guilt" (ve-ashem), as it is written of all the others who might sin; for if indeed it had said "and he realizes his guilt," this would indicate that he must repent; but repentance does not apply to the high priest, for the sin was not because of his own will, rather, because "blame [for his sin] falls upon the people."

Again, in his comments on errors of the Sanhedrin (Lev.4: 21), Sforno notes:  "Regarding an unwitting error of the Sanhedrin … of them too it is said to be 'the sin of the community,' for such would not have happened were it not for the sinfulness of that generation, as well."[8]

Maimonides and Sforno obviously think that a sin committed by people of high station is more grave.  That is why according to Sforno, the sprinkling of blood for an oversight of the Sanhedrin is done in the inner sanctum (Sforno, ibid.).[9] Nevertheless, he argues unequivocally that the root of responsibility lies with the people.

It is a wonder that they set forth such a position, after we have such an abundance of statements by the Sages that lay greater responsibility on leaders and public figures and actually view their sins and transgressions with greater severity.  Perhaps in taking such an interpretive approach these thinkers did not mean to belittle the responsibility placed on the sinning leader's shoulders, but rather to emphasize the great responsibility of the society.   Just as R. Johanan ben Zakkai said in his testament to his disciples, "May it be His will that the fear of Heaven rest upon you no less than the fear of flesh and blood" (Berakhot 28b), so too we say:  were it not for the surrounding society that accepted his wayward deeds, were it not for their looking away, the leader would not have permitted himself to act in such a manner.  Thus, regarding the quality of leadership, these commentators are sending out a warning to the entire society.

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