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Blessed is the Generation....

03/23/2023 01:52:34 PM


The first half book of Leviticus strikes fear into the hearts of sermonizers, homileticists, and B’nai Mitzvah. The next few weeks of our Torah reading will focus on the sacrificial order, and it would seem there are only so many ways that you can talk about burnt offerings and the sprinkling of fat upon the altar.  However, even in the midst of presenting a ritual order that seems so alien to us, the Torah reflected values that are deeply relevant for us today. For example, our portion this week includes Leviticus chapter 4, which conveys specific instructions for offerings to be brought the High Priest, the leaders of the people, or even a prince should sin, even unwittingly, they must bring an offering. As go the leaders, so go the nation.

We might not be surprised that guilt-offerings for these authority figures are included in the litany of types of sacrifices, but in fact, this statement is remarkable. In many communities and cultures, ancient and modern, the highest leaders were perceived as infallible or above the law. Certainly many tyrants have sought to use force to establish absolute power, or to declare their actions beyond question. The same is true of religious leaders. In Christianity the pope was seen to be, by definition, infallible. Even today, there are some Jewish groups who hold that their particular rabbi has reached such a level that they could not possibly err. 

A contrary view is baked into the very structure of Leviticus chapter 4. It begins by specifying the offerings brought by a high priest. The Pope may sometimes wear vestments reminiscent of the Jewish high priest, but the high priest was forced to confess his sins and errors, while for centuries the Pope’s word was law. This past Sunday, many in our congregation had the opportunity to learn from Brendan Murphy, who shared just how remarkable it was that some recent popes have sought forgiveness for the hatred fomented against Jews by the Church.

The chapter continues (Lev 4:22). “If a prince should sin by doing any of the things that God has commanded not to do, and did so unintentionally, and he is guilty.” In the Talmud (Horayot 10b), Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai makes a pun with an important punchline. He reads the words “Asher nasi yechta”- which are literally read as “If a prince should sin” and translates them as “Happy is the generation whose prince admits an error and brings a sin-offering.” He suggests that realistically, leaders are judged not based on whether they never err (for such a thing is not possible) but on whether they willing to admit their error and seek forgiveness and a new path.

R. Ben Zakkai goes a step further- he notes that it is only following the passage describing the sins of the prince that there is a description of the offering brought by a regular person who has offended. Leaders set the tone for their communities- if a leader evades responsibility for his offenses, corruption will spread. Why should the people do any different? Conversely, if the prince, king or other leader sets an example of appropriate self-reflection and contrition, then the people will follow their example and act with integrity as well. 

Whether in ancient times or today, we must acknowledge that every person, from the elite to the common, will eventually stray in some fashion. What gives integrity to an individual, and blessing to a generation, is the willingness of those high and low to admit to error and seek to correct one’s wrongs.

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784