Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

Please Pass the Salt

A Journey into the Five Layers of Torah Study, and the Five Layers of Human Identity


When, Not If

The weekly Torah portion of Vayikra (and much of the book of Vayikra, Leviticus) is about sacrifices, and though these laws have been inoperative for almost 2000 years since the destruction of the Temple, the moral principles they embody and the messages they contain are meaningful and inspiring.

The Torah in this portion describes the various kinds of sin offering, brought in the case of inadvertent wrongdoing (shegagah). Four different cases are considered: the anointed priest (high priest), the community (represented by the Sanhedrin or supreme court), the Prince (Nasi, Leader, King), and an ordinary individual. Because their roles in the community were different, so too was the form of their atonement.

In each of the above situations the Torah raises the possibility of sin, with one glaring exception. In three cases, the law is introduced by the Hebrew word “im,” "if." It is possible that a high priest, the community, or an individual may err.

ויקרא ד, ג. יג: אִם הַכֹּהֵן הַמָּשִׁיחַ יֶחֱטָא. וְאִם כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ.

However, when the Torah describes the potential sin of a leader (a Nasi) the text reads:

ויקרא ד, כב: אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא...

“When a leader sins…”

Not if, but when.

The connotation seems troubling. With individual Jews, there is possibility of sin. The same can be said for the High Priest and the Supreme Court. With leaders, however, there is not the possibility of sin, but the probability of sin. The question is not if, but when!

This is how the Zohar on Vayikra and the 15th-century Italian biblical commentator Rabbi Ovadya Seforno[1] understood the wording of the verse:

אמנם דבר מצוי שיחטא...

After all, it is common that he will sin.

Why such pessimism? There are a few reasons for this. At the dawn of history, the Torah established a truth most famously verbalized centuries later by the nineteenth-century moralist Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[2]

Yet, there is more to this. Because of the great risks a leader must take, the assumption of a leadership position carries with it the inevitability of error. "A leader takes people where they want to go; a great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be," is the old saying.

To be a leader, to deal with diverse people, to be creative, innovative and decisive, to make difficult and heart-wrenching decisions, guarantees mistakes.

The leader must, for example, decide whether to send his soldiers into battle or keep them home. Which decision is correct? Sending your soldiers to war will almost certainly result in deaths. Keeping them home, may allow your enemy to conquer the country. These are some of the painstaking decisions leaders must make.

Four Saints

If sin and leadership are synonymous, does the Torah’s moral system discourage the assumption of leadership?

For this we will introduce an enigmatic Talmudic passage. The Talmud states:[3]

תנו רבנן, ארבעה מתו בעטיו של נחש. ואלו הן בנימין בן יעקב ועמרם אבי משה וישי אבי דוד וכלאב בן דוד.

Four people died only because of the advice of the snake (meaning, they never committed any sins, they only died because of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge which introduced the reality of death into human life.[4]) Benjamin, the son of Jacob; Amram the father of Moses; Yishai the father of David, and Kileab the son of David.

There is something amiss here. Think of all the great people of our nation who are excluded from this list: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; the other eleven sons of Jacob including Benjamin’s older and beloved brother Joseph, known as Yosef HaTzaddik, Joseph the righteous one. Moses, the greatest prophet, teacher and leader of Israel about whom the Torah states that “there never arose a prophet like Moses whom G-d knew face to face.” Aaron, the High Priest, Joshua, Samuel, and many more, are not on the list. Our greatest giants did not make it into the Who's Who list of sinless people. Instead, the list consists of four relatively anonymous persons: Benjamin, Amram, Yishai and Kileab. Why?[5]

Also, the Talmudic identification of each of these four individuals is strange. Each of them is mentioned with his father’s name or his son’s name. Why doesn’t the Talmud simply list their names as it does with most biblical characters? Why identify each historical figure by his relationship to another: Benjamin, the son of Jacob; Amram, the father of Moses; Yishai, the father of David; Kileab, the son of David?

The Talmud intimates an extraordinary idea: Our greatest heroes are not the ones who never sinned, but the ones who actually committed mistakes (relative to their spiritual level). Because when you are a leader it is not a question of “if” but of “when.”

Benjamin, Amram, Yishai and Kileab all died sinless because they lived a life of isolation. They did not deal much with people; they did not take responsibility for the generation; they did not get enmeshed in the affairs of the community. In short, they did not get their hands dirty; hence they remained untarnished.

Jacob, Moses, and David are not said to have died only “due to the snake.” According to the Torah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses committed mistakes—relative to their sublime state of spiritual greatness. Relative to their standing, there was some form of “cheit”—lack and void.[6] Why? Not because they were not noble and holy men; but because they were leaders in a really crazy world, and by the very nature of their role, perfection is impossible.

This may be why the Talmud gives us the names of each of these four saints with another name. In a rather elegant way, the Talmud wants us to compare each of these four saintly spotless individuals to a more well-known relative: Jacob, Moses, and David. It wants us to recall that despite the greatness of these four men, our greatest honor is reserved to these other relatives, who made it their responsibility to illuminate a dark world.

The Hermit

If you are a hermit, if you don’t do anything, you will never be criticized, nor will you make mistakes. Inaction, by definition, does not lend itself to error. Action always lends itself to error. When you do things, you will be scrutinized and criticized; someone will always have what to say and you are prone to error. So although we have a place in our hearts for the four individuals who never sinned, because they remained aloof; although we pay tribute to spiritual saints who don’t hurt a fly and remain immaculate, and we ought to learn from them and be inspired by them, nonetheless we remind ourselves of those individuals who were even greater than the sinless saints—because they did “sin,” because they did commit errors. They went out and made a radical difference in people’s lives; they sought to change the world.

I recall standing one Shabbos afternoon in a synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. A man approached the great sage Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel (Shteinsaltz) and asked him if he had any regrets in life. Rabbi Adin responded: I made many mistakes, and I regret them. But I regret far more all those things I never tried out of fear of making a mistake…

Or as Les Brown put it: “Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.”

Marriage & Parenting

Consider marriage and parenting. If you choose to remain single, you will never have an argument in your home, never experience strife and discord, and nobody will ever accuse you of being “insensitive, selfish, careless, irresponsible, narcissistic, and ‘out for lunch.’ If you decide not to have children, no one will accuse you of being a horrible parent, a controlling mother, ruining the lives of your children, crippling them emotionally, and sending them into therapy for decades.

Yet we were created not to be perfect—angels and souls in heaven are perfect. We were created to jump into the circus of life, make mistakes and learn from them, to get entangled in the thicket of life and then come out stronger.

But there is one condition. We need not be perfect, but we must be accountable.

Mazal Tov

That is the reason for the strange Jewish custom that after the breaking of the glass at the end of the marriage ceremony, everyone screams, “Mazal Tov!” What’s the mazal tov? A nice glass was broken, after all.

There is a moving message here we are conveying to the new bride. “You see your groom? Now he’s perfect. He’s handsome, flawless, and impeccable. He is the dream of your life. But sooner or later, he will begin breaking things… You know what you do when he begins breaking things? Say Mazal Tov! Mazal tov that I am married to a real human being who is imperfect.

This is how Judaism understood the concept of sin—as an opportunity for rebirth. Much of Vayikra revolves around this theme of sin and atonement. It is as though G-d is telling us: I know you are human. Humans are not perfect. I made you that way. And I love you anyway. In fact, that's why I love you—because you are not perfect. I already had perfection before I created you. What I want from creation is an imperfect world that strives to improve, filled with human beings that fail, get up and move ahead. By being imperfect but persevering nevertheless, you have fulfilled the purpose of your creation. You have achieved the one thing that I can't do without you—you have brought the perfect G-d into an imperfect world.

Failing at our mission is itself a part of the mission, as long as we can rise up and continue moving, with the newly discovered wisdom from our failures.

The Price of Leadership

“The price of greatness is responsibility,” Winston Churchill said. We might add: The price of leadership is sin. As long as you are accountable, honest and ready to learn from past errors, fear not the fact that you will stumble.

This is the Torah’s message in Vayikra. Leaders make mistakes. That is inevitable. Now their job is not to run and hide; but to face the mistakes, acknowledge them, and bring atonement.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for,” William Shedo said. Each of us is called on to be a leader, a “Nasi,” in our own way, a beacon of influence, an ambassador of love, wisdom, light, and hope. Get out of the harbor into the sea. We know you will break a thing or two in the process. When you do, we will scream Mazal Tov and move on.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Just make sure two things: 1) they are new mistakes; not the same old ones. 2) That you know how to say I am sorry and learn from your mistakes to create a brighter future.

A person who makes no mistakes, generally makes nothing. Yet a person who makes mistakes and then justifies them must resign from every form of leadership.


[1] Suferno Vayikra 4:22

[2] Expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887.

[3] Shabbas 55b. Bava Basra 17a

[4] Genesis ch. 3

[5] This question is rasied in Chidushei Agados Maharal to Bava Basra ibid. He presents a different answer.

[6] As in Kings 1, 1:21: “My son and I will be ‘chataim,” lacking. See Rashi and Metzudos to Kings 1, 1:21. CF. Maharal, Beer Hagoleh, section 4 about this meaning of the term “cheit.” Sefer Hamaamarim 5640 p. 908 and references noted there. See Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 Lech Lecha about Abraham’s “sin.”