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Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

People make mistakes. Great people make mistakes; not-so-great people make mistakes. Imperfection is part of the human condition. As a species, we are perfectly imperfect, and we provide new evidence of this condition every day.

The Torah is well aware of human shortcomings. We might say that the entire book of Bereishit is a case-study of human frailty, a panoramic view of the crimes of which we are capable. The book of Shmot begins with a display of human inhumanity, as one nation enslaves another and attempts to erase the image of God with which every human soul is endowed.

As we begin a new book, Vayikra, we are given tools with which to address and correct our limitations, and a place where we can go to contemplate our personal and communal failures, to repent, and to change our ways.

As the different types of sacrificial offerings are enumerated, we learn about all sorts of situations that can be corrected, and all sorts of spiritual rifts that can be healed. First, the Olah offering is presented. Some commentaries understand the Olah as a means of atonement for sinful thoughts; others believe it atones for missed opportunities, for failure to perform a mitzvah, failure to bring more holiness into the world. The Maharal of Prague (in Gur Aryeh, Vayikra 1:4) opined that the Olah atones for deliberate sins - acts of rebellion against God.

The next category, the so-called "sin offerings," is presented in a manner that we might not have expected: Rather than enumerating a list of sins for which atonement may be achieved through this type of sacrifice, the Torah provides a list of people, in different stations of life.

God spoke to Moshe saying. Speak to the Israelite people thus:
If perchance an individual commits an inadvertent sin by violating one of God's prohibitory commandments;
If the kohen commits an [inadvertent] violation, bringing guilt to his people ... (Vayikra 4:3);
If the entire community of Israel has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the leaders of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which God has commanded not to do, and they realize their guilt... (Vayikra 4:13)

Ordinary people, religious leaders, even judges -no one is perfect. There is no papal infallibility built into the Jewish system. There is right and wrong, and when errors of judgment lead to transgression, there is culpability.

What is noteworthy about all of these examples is that they are stated as a possibility - "perchance," "if." However, the language used to introduce the next "sinner" is very different:

When a Nasi sins...(Vayikra 4:22)

The Nasi (which may be translated as president, king or chieftain) is the nation's highest political leader, and in the case of the Nasi, the Torah indicates that transgression is not only a possibility, it is an eventuality. The Nasi will, without a doubt, sin. Rabbenu Bahya (Vayikra 4:22) points out the shift in language, and explains that the hubris associated with leadership may not be a prerequisite for the job, but it is, at the very least, an occupational hazard.

Throughout history, many cultures saw their leaders as gods or demigods, or as mortals endowed with the divine right of kings - absolute moral, religious, and political power. The Torah, in contrast, teaches us that leaders are no less accountable for their sins than anyone else. No matter how lofty their position, they can and should be called to task for their transgressions. Their actions are not by definition sanctioned by Heaven; quite the opposite. The Torah considers them the most likely to err, and provides a mechanism to address and correct the mistakes our leaders will inevitably commit.

A nation that is self-reflective, that questions its own actions and attitudes, is a nation that can bring a great deal of good to the world. We are all human, we are all imperfect, and awareness of our imperfections is the first step to improvement. Perfection is beyond our grasp, but greatness is achievable. This is the lesson we learn from our greatest king, David. In what may have been his finest moment, the moment in which he achieved true greatness in the Jewish sense of the word, he uttered only two words: "Chatati laHashem"-"I have sinned against God." (2 Shmuel 12:13) With those words, King David, ever imperfect, showed why his kingship would be everlasting.

© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2018

For more essays and lectures on Parashat Vayikra:

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