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The Leader's Repentance

Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Vayikra, 4:22: When a ruler sins, and commits one from among all the commandments of Hashem, his God, that may not be done – unintentionally – and becomes guilty.
Rashi, Vayikra, 4:22: sv: When (asher) a ruler sins: The language used is [akin to ‘ashrei’] – [this comes to teach that] fortunate is the generation whose ruler seeks atonement for his unintentional sins…

The Torah discusses the sacrifices that are required to atone for various sins. When the Torah specifies the Nasi’s process of atonement, it deviates from its normal language for the phrase, ‘when he will sin’ – in the other three passages in the Chapter, the Torah uses the word, ‘ve’im’ to mean, ‘and if’, but here it expresses the same idea with the word, ‘asher’. Rashi, quoting the Gemara1 explains that this alludes to the word, ‘ashrei’ which means fortunate, and it comes to teach us that the generation whose Nasi seeks atonement for his sins is fortunate. The commentaries ask that it is easy to understand why the Nasi himself is fortunate that he atones for his sins, but why is the generation fortunate because of this?!

One answer given is based on an important idea – the conduct of a leader in his personal life should be intrinsically connected to his actions in the public arena in his role as a representative of the people. It is common in non-Torah society that leaders do not demonstrate the best character traits. For example, he may act immorally in his relationships, or his integrity in his business conduct may not be exemplary. Such a leader may argue that how he acts in his personal life should have no impact on how he leads his people. However, the Torah views this issue in a very different manner. One’s personal conduct reflects his moral standing, and if it is found lacking, then it demonstrates that he is not fitting to lead the nation in the correct way.

One vital area where this idea is relevant is having the humility to admit one’s errors in his personal life. Nobody is expected to be perfect – indeed the Prophets tell us that there is no man who never sins.2 However, one indication of a person’s level is his willingness to take responsibility for his mistakes and sins. If a leader is able to acknowledge, and strive to rectify, his personal failings, then his subjects can be confident that he will bring this admirable trait to the public realm. In his role as leader, it is essential that he be prepared to admit when he has made a misjudgment or acted improperly. A leader that does not have the ability to objectively assess his behavior and repent from his mistakes is seriously flawed in his leadership.

This is what the Sages mean when they say that the generation whose leader atones for his sins, is fortunate. If the people know that their leader is willing to stand up and admit his sins in his private life, then they can be confident that he will bring that humility to his role as leader, and will strive to rectify any mistakes he makes in leading the people. The principle that a leader’s conduct in his private life is connected to his deeds that effect the masses, is not restricted to an ability to admit one’s errors. If a leader cannot be trusted to act ethically in his private life, then there is considerable reason to fear that he will act accordingly in his public role. Accordingly, it has always been expected that Torah leaders lead exemplary private lives.

The exalted level that our leaders reached in their private lives is epitomized in the following story: The Alter of Kelm was one of the leading teachers of the movement that focused on Torah growth known as the Mussar movement.3 He used to travel in order to raise money for his Torah institutions: The institution paid his expenses during his trips. Upon returning, he would give the treasurers a complete report of funds raised and of his expenses. On one occasion, he presented them with a bundle of money and half a cigarette4. Since he had only smoked half of it during his mission, he now returned the other half!5 A person who is so careful in such seemingly minor matters, can surely be trusted to act with total integrity in his role as a leader. May we all merit to live ethical lives in the private and public spheres.

  1. Horayos, 10b.
  2. Koheles, 7:20. There is a Gemara that seems to contradict this idea (Shabbos 55b, Bava Basra, 17a) – the Gemara says that there were four people who never sinned. Any approaches to this problem are appreciated.
  3. The form of self-growth introduced by Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l.
  4. Needless to say, that in those days, there was very little awareness of the dangers of smoking. In recent times, Torah leaders have spoken out very strongly against smoking.
  5. Rav Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik, Sparks of Mussar, pp.75-76.


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