Thursday, March 22, 2012

Do sinning and leading always go together?

Interesting bit of two-way Torah this week in Lev 4. The chapter discusses sin offerings brought by various categories of people - the individual, the community,the priest, and the leader.

Here's what the Torah says:
  • "If ("im") the anointed priest should sin to bring guilt on the people etc." (Leviticus 4:3)
  • "If ("im") the entire congregation of Israel erred and the matter was concealed from eyes of the community etc." (Leviticus 4:13)
  • "If ("im") a person shall unwittingly sin, one of the ordinary people, etc." (Leviticus 4:27)
But when it comes to the leader the verse says:
  • "When ("asher") a Prince shall sin etc."
Most of the bold names make note of the anomaly.  A summary of their interpretations:

Ibn Ezra: This discrepancy is really no discrepancy. As per [grammatical rules] the understanding in all cases is IF
Chizkuni: Ditto. For slightly difference reasons.
Rashi: The word used for IF is asher which puns on the word for "fortunate". The verse is REALLY saying the a generation with a leader brave enough to admit his mistakes is a fortunate one.
Seforno: You can't lead without sinning. One follows from the other inevitably.

  • Ibn Ezra was a wandering poet; Seforno was himself a political leader. Perhaps their readings of the verse were influenced by their respective biographies?
  • What do we do with Rashi? His comment doesn't really solve the problem does it? What prevents him from taking the discrepancy at face value, and saying that leaders inevitably sin? Again, I find myself thinking about the time and place that produced him and the sort of life that he led. He was not a political leader himself, but he lived at a time when kings were thought to be above criticism. Anything a king did was ipso facto the right thing to do. Perhaps he saw what Sefrono saw but, owinig to his particular Weltanschauung, couldn't quite accept it?
  • And let's not rule out the possibility that Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni are the ones who are correct here. Perhaps Seforno found something in the verse that's not really there. Sure, we moderns are perfectly comfortable with the idea that leadership leads inevitably to corruption, (Thank you Lord Acton) but who says the Torah sees it that way? Maybe the verse really isn't making any special point about a king's extra susceptibility to sin. 

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