Admitting mistakes: Sign of real leadership is knowing when you’re wrong

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

By Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1−5:26)

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the famous first-century rabbi said, “happy is the generation whose ruler brings a sin offering.”

This is a curious marker of a fortunate generation, but it can shed light on one of the opening topics of Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) and in that way, teach us something about the book as a whole.

The book of Vayikra, which we begin to read and study this Shabbat, is transfixed by the idea of holiness and how it can be generated, preserved, and ultimately spread throughout an entire community. As the book begins, kedushah, holiness, is the province of the kohanim, the priests, as they operate within the confines of the mishkan, the sanctuary. As the book unfolds, kedushah is a spread to every confine of society in concentric circles that come to include each individual member of the sacred community. Kedushah is created by the foods that we eat, by the relationships that we form with others, by the days of our calendar that we sanctify with rest and worship, and, of course, by our ethical interactions with other people.

Holiness, in Vayikra, requires ethical sensitivity, ritual meticulousness, and a conscientious attention to a myriad of details of life. It is exhausting to live life with such an intense awareness of Divine scrutiny and also accountable to a comprehensive system of mitzvot and obligations. Right at the beginning of Vayikra we are told that failures are inevitable and that there is a method to recover in the face of failure.

Offerings and animal sacrifices of various kinds are described in the Torah from the first chapters of Genesis. When the Torah describes the construction of the mishkan it is obvious that offerings and animal sacrifices are meant to constitute a significant portion of activities there. The offerings that are described in the opening chapters of Vayikra can be divided, roughly, into two categories, optional offerings, and obligatory offerings. Of the obligatory offerings, the most common and most important offering was the korban hattat.  The korban hattat is most commonly translated into English as a “sin offering” but the contemporary educator and scholar Rabbi Moshe Sokolow has pointed out that hattat, from the Hebrew het, has a very different valence than “sin.” A sin is the result of a degree of evil or malice that is not implicated in the Hebrew het, which instead signifies a missed goal (like an arrow that has gone astray – see Judges 20:16 for an example).

The korban hattat, is therefore not something that is brought in response to sin, but something brought in response to het, a failure to attain our goals or for missing our target. How do we miss our targets? The korban hattat is brought in response to violations of the Torah’s prohibitions that occur under two sets of circumstances, someone may be confused about the law itself (and what the Torah permits and what it forbids) or someone may be confused about an element of reality and the consequences of a certain action (for example someone may forget that it is Shabbat or Yom Kippur). These examples of “missing the target” are accidental violations of the Torah’s rules, or transgressions that are “shogeg” in Hebrew and violations of these kinds could be rectified through the korban hattat.

If these accidental cases of missing the target indicate no malice aforethought or evil designs, why is any rectification needed whatsoever? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, wrote that the casual approach to life in general, or to mitzvot in particular, allows accidental violations that are missing the target. That casualness and lack of conscientious awareness of my surroundings and the mitzvot of the Torah is what must be rectified. If one could violate a command of the Torah merely by not caring enough to prevent that violation, then one’s way of being in the world needs adjustment and this is the purpose of the korban hattat.

The Torah delineates four different categories of korban hattat. One is for a kohen, or priest, who violates the Torah in a shogeg fashion. One is for circumstances in which the entire nation violates the Torah in a shogeg fashion (perhaps they were misled about some pertinent detail of the Torah’s laws). One is for a prince or nasi violates the Torah in an unwitting fashion, and finally one form of korban hattat for common, civilian, Israelites.

Even though each of these four categories are in the Torah, they are not presented equally. Three out of the four categories are introduced with the word “im” or by saying “If it should happen that a transgression occurs under these circumstances…”  However, the unwitting transgression of the prince is introduced with a different Hebrew word, not “im” for “if” but “asher” for “when.”

In this way the Torah hides an important point within a myriad of details of this taxonomy of offerings. Leaders always commit transgressions of one kind or another. Those who exercise leadership are forced, at times, to decide between two bad options. The act of exercising leadership requires disappointing elements of one’s own constituency who had hoped an untenable status quo could endure for longer or who had wished for a policy change in a different direction. To accept a leadership position is to implicitly accept the need to disappoint others and to embrace bad options when the alternatives seem worse. It is not a question of “if” a leader should miss the target, but “when” a leader misses the target.

Rabbi Yohanan’s statement now makes sense. Happy is the generation when its leader is open about the occasions when the target was missed, tries to rectify the damage in whatever ways are available, and in this way makes better choices in the future and serves as a positive role model to others.

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld is rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation.

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