Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Do Gedolim Sometimes Make Mistakes?

The Torah has a special passage discussing when a ruler, a nasi, sins accidentally (Lev. 4:22). It begins, "אשר נשיא יחטא -- When a ruler has sinned." The first word, asher, is unusual in this context and Rashi quotes the Gemara's explanation that it can be understood as ashrei -- praiseworthy. Namely, "praiseworthy is the generation whose ruler takes care to acquire atonement for his mistaken sins." This is certainly unusual. Wouldn't a generation be praiseworthy if its ruler does not sin at all?

Click here to read moreI think an answer can be found in an earlier passage. At the beginning of the chapter, the Torah discusses when an anointed priest sins accidentally (Lev. 4:3): "אם הכהן המשיח יחטא לאשמת העם -- If the anointed priest sins, to the guilt on the people." What does it mean "le-ashmas ha-am", which I translated as "to the guilt of the people"?

I'd like to suggest that this refers to the common saying that a people gets the leaders it deserves. A religious leader, a gadol ha-dor, succeeds or does not based on the worthiness of his community. If the people are entirely righteous, then the religious leader will not err, even accidentally. But if they are not righteous, then the degree of success of their religious leader will complement their own worthiness. That is what it means "le-ashmas ha-am." The larger the guilt, the larger the mistakes of their leaders. However, the mistakes of those religious leaders do not necessarily reflect on their own shortcomings. Just like Hillel did not achieve prophecy for reasons related entirely to his community and not to himself, the same applies to accidental errors of leaders.

Perhaps the same can be said about political leaders. While the Torah only relates the above principle to religious leaders, maybe that is because it is most surprising in that context but it also applies to other types of leaders. If so, then in an unredeemed world leaders will always be making some mistakes. Even in the unusual case that they are perfect in every way, if their community is not as perfect then they will err commensurate with the worthiness of their people. If so, and it is almost guaranteed that political leaders will make some mistakes, then we can understand why the Torah praises the generation whose leaders at least recognize that they are imperfect and try to recognize their mistakes and correct them.

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