The strength to take a risk, and the humility to admit when a risk fails
In one of his discussions of this week’s Torah reading of “Vayikra,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l (“The Sins of a Leader,” Covenant and Conversation, 5781) pointed out that in referring to sins committed by functionaries – the priests or the judges – or by the people, for which they must bring sacrifices, the word used is “if” (im) – if they should sin. But when referring to sins of the nasi, the political ruler, the word used is “when” (asher). This is the basis for an important talmudic insight. “When a leader of Israel sins and unintentionally commits one of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, incurring guilt…” (Leviticus 4, 2).
Rabbi Sacks writes: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai summed it up with a brilliant double entendre on the word “asher”, meaning “when” in the phrase “when a leader sins.” He relates it to the word “ashrei”, which means “happy,” and says: Happy is the generation whose leader is willing to bring a sin offering for their mistakes (Tosefta, Bava Kamma, 7:5).
Rabbi Sacks comments that the unique challenge of political leadership is that it must deal with conflicting interests related to wealth and power in a constantly changing social and cultural reality. It is, therefore, probable that s/he will sin, unlike judges and priests who are working from within more conservative contexts of law and ritual. That is why it is all the more important that there be checks and balances, external constraints placed on political rulers.
Rabbi Sacks adds: “Leadership demands two kinds of courage: the strength to take a risk, and the humility to admit when a risk fails.” King David’s response to the censure of Nathan the prophet is an example of such courage. He is a model for our tradition of teshuva. His words of contrition, in another context, are recited in the Tahanun prayer in synagogues all over the world.
But what if a leader will not admit guilt? What if a leader has not acted in the interest of the people; what if s/he has wilfully sinned? When s/he disobeys the Torah, ignores criticism, the outcry of prophets? What then?
Jewish history is full of examples of bitter internal conflicts and their tragic consequences, of instances when the leadership was irresponsible, morally corrupt or both, and so failed us. From the days of the demagoguery of Korah’s rebellion against Moses’ leadership (which didn’t succeed, but cost so many lives), through to the bloody division of our first kingdom into two after Solomon’s reign, to the fall of our second commonwealth because of internal struggle while the Romans awaited their opportunity to conquer and destroy, wayward, power-hungry leaders have done their damage. The exploitation of conflict by selfish leaders for their own benefit, or because of fanaticism and false messianism, has a long, and bloody history.
How to behave in such times? I turn to a halachic article written by one of my teachers, Rabbi Professor David Golinkin (“A Jewish View of Non-Violent Protest and Civil Disobedience,” The Jerusalem Post, August 31, 2020), for guidance in this case:
“I believe that Jewish tradition allows Jews to protest and engage in civil disobedience, provided that these activities are non-violent, and provided that the protesters are willing to suffer the consequences, such as imprisonment.”
The importance of protesting an injustice or a transgression is emphasized numerous times in rabbinic literature: “Whoever can protest to his household and does not, is accountable [for the sins] of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople, he is accountable for their sins; if he could protest to the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world” (Shabbat 54b).
Those who do not get out there to protest the government’s moral corruption and despicable incitement to racism and hatred, as it moves to establish a form of authoritarian rule and destroy all protection for minorities against arbitrary rule, are transgressing against basic Jewish law. All who remain silent or passive are accountable for the disaster to come. History will judge us for inaction. May God be with us in this struggle for our freedom!
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, is a board member of RHR and Tag Meir, an Author (see: www.farawayfromwhere.com), and veteran of Kehilat Yedidya.
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