Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin's 'Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra' Click here to buy the book
Why does the Torah state “when a leader sins” rather than “if a leader sins”?
There are scholars who are willing to embrace the pshat of this phrase and the troubling philosophical message it conveys. This straightforward approach is mirrored in the comments of the Sforno: “[The Torah states] ‘When a leader sins’ ...for, after all, it is expected that he will sin.”(Sforno, ibid.)
At the dawn of history, the Torah establishes a truth most famously verbalized centuries later by the nineteenth-century moralist Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887)
Through a simple twist of text, God warns of the dangers of leadership. From the Torah’s perspective the issue is not “if a leader will sin” but “when a leader will sin.” Whether because of the corrupting influence of power or simply because of the risks a leader must take, the assumption of a leadership position carries with it the inevitability of sin.
What, however, is the lesson the Torah wishes to convey? If sin and leadership are synonymous, does the Torah’s moral system discourage the assumption of leadership roles?
A strange Talmudic passage may well shed light upon the rabbinic attitude towards the interface between leadership and sin.
The rabbis taught: Four individuals died … not as a result of their own sins but from the mortality introduced into man’s existence, … in the Garden of Eden]. They were: Binyamin, the son of Yaakov; Amram, the father of Moshe; Yishai, the father of David; Kil’av, the son of David. (Bava Batra 17a)
The contemporary scholar Rabbi Zevulun Charlop notes that the Talmudic identification of each of these individuals is strange. Why, he asks, doesn’t the Talmud simply list their names? Why identify each historical figure by his relationship to another: Binyamin, the son of Yaakov; Amram, the father of Moshe; Yishai, the father of David; Kil’av, the son of David?
Clearly, the Talmud wants us to compare each of these four individuals to a more well-known relative. When we do so, a striking truth emerges. Each of the four figures identified in the Talmud as having died “without sin” pales in comparison to a close relative who cannot make that claim. While some Midrashic traditions maintain otherwise [As we have noted before (see Unlocking the Torah Text on Bereishit), a spectrum of opinion exists within rabbinic thought concerning the potential fallibility of biblical heroes, some sages refusing to see any possible failing on the part of the heroes of the Torah and Tanach.], the straightforward reading of events indicates that Yaakov, Moshe and David certainly sinned, and that their sins are recorded for posterity in the Tanach and rabbinic literature. Nonetheless, their place in Jewish history is unsurpassed. In spite of faults and human failings, Yaakov remains the greatest of our patriarchs, (Midrash Sechel Tov Bereishit 33) Moshe the greatest of our prophets, (Devarim 34:10) David the greatest of our kings. (Midrash Tehillim Mizmor 1)
Is it preferable to be Binyamin or Yaakov, Amram or Moshe, Yishai or David, Kil’av or David? While all of these personalities were righteous men deserving of emulation, the Talmud’s answer is clear: Better to risk sin and rise to leadership than to remain unblemished in the shadows.
Points to Ponder
A cursory glance at trends within Jewish day school and yeshiva education today reveals that we are not training the best of our children towards Jewish communal leadership.
So much emphasis is placed in the “yeshiva world” on the goals of personal piety and Torah study that many of our brightest are loathe to venture outside the walls of the beit midrash (house of study). Success within the system is defined by a willingness to engage in full-time Torah study. As a result, many young men and women whose contributions to the Jewish nation are potentially invaluable remain cloistered, unwilling to take the risks associated with involvement with the community at large.
At the same time, for years, the choice of a career in Jewish leadership has rarely been promoted by parents in the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. Within those sectors, the rabbinate is generally perceived as “no job for a good Jewish boy” and teaching is often discouraged as a vocational choice. The hours in both the communal and educational spheres are seen as long, the burdens overwhelming, the responsibilities great, the social position lonely, the material rewards (in many cases) limited.
The rabbis, already in Talmudic times, acknowledged the moral risks inherent in positions of power. They determined, however, that the benefits of communal involvement far outweigh the cost. Today, we are challenged to recapture for ourselves and to communicate to our own children that sense of commitment and mission.
Thankfully, strides have been made to increase the professional stature and financial remuneration of those who choose careers in Jewish leadership. We still have a way to go, however, before those careers become as attractive and as respected as other opportunities available to the young men and women of our community.
The call to leadership is far from risk-free. Ignoring that call, however, carries the greatest risks of all.