Dvar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar, March 21, 2015
I’ve long been fascinated with the grammatical construction of “passive to avoid taking responsibility.” Perhaps there’s an actual technical name for this phenomena, but you should all be familiar with it:
“It spilled….” of course it didn’t someone knocked it over!
Or “it fell,” and its popular cousin, “it got dropped” Really? by who?
We’ve all heard this usage, and most of us probably have said something along these lines. It makes it easier to talk about something that has gone wrong hence my designation:“passive to avoid taking responsibility.”
The famous political version of this phenomena is “Mistakes were made.” Used by American presidents as early as Ulysses Grant in the 1870s, it was popularized by the Nixon administration. It works the same way as the examples above: the speaker can admit that there was a mistake, but doesn’t accept the blame or direct the blame at anyone else.
Compare this with the following verses from our parashah:
(4:22) :אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכָּל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תֵעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵׁם
When a leader sins, accidentally and did something that goes against one of God’s commandments that he should not have done, and is guilty…
(4:23) :אוֹ-הוֹדַע אֵלָיו חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא בָּהּ וְהֵבִיא אֶת-קָרְבָּנוֹ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים זָכָר תָּמִים
Or when his sin was told to him, he should bring for his sacrifice two unblemished male goats.
In fact, the 4th perek of Vayikra, aside from the nasi as mentioned above, also covers the case of the kohen gadol (high priest) who sins. These leaders don’t get to issue a #sorrynotsorry apology. Instead the text lists out the exact sacrifices that they must perform in order to atone for their sins. For precise details of this process see perek dalet.
What’s interesting is what’s not in there as compared to the rituals of apology for public figures in our society. There’s no mandatory press conference with the spouse standing by the ashamed leader’s side. There’s no precisely worded press release. And in our tradition the only scapegoat is an actual sacrifice, not a member of the leader’s staff. Our tradition acknowledges that leaders, like the rest of us, make mistakes, and they need to be absolved but at the end of the day, the person can maintain their leadership position.
And though our parashah is generally alluding to when leaders make inadvertent mistakes, Rashi expands the category much further. He comments on the word choice of the phrasing Asher Nasi Yeheta. and notes:
:לשון אשרי, אשרי הדור שהנשיא שלו נותן לב להביא כפרה על שגגתו, קל וחומר שמתחרט על זדונותיו
Why does it say asher | when a nasi will sin? It is is the language of ashrei (note the lignuistic wordplay, asher, ashrei), happiness. Happy is the generation where their leader pays attention to bring atonement for his or her inadvertent error.
If we should be happy when a leader atones for his or her inadvertent errors, all the more so, [we should be happy] when a leader regrets something done deliberately.
This is surprising. We might be able to get over it when a leader admits to an inadvertent mistake, but Rashi’s pushing further than that. In this case, the leader in question hasn’t done so inadvertently – they did what they did on purpose. But if they later come to regret that sort of mistake, we should be happy about that too.
Yet, when our public figures, leaders, actor or sports players make a mistake we call into question their fitness as a leader and their ability to do the job. Many of these people did not rise to our attention because we thought they would be a good role model, or because of their good judgement in intimate relationships but more because of their facility with economics, with a basketball or an ability to act. Yet somehow, just by virtue of their prominence we expect more from them. Often we don’t even stop to ask ourselves if this a reasonable expectation.
Collective expectations define people by their public profile and that’s what leads us to make judgements about them, yet a close reading of the first sentence of our perek cautions against this. Verse 2 says:
When a nefesh sins. Nefesh is a particularly odd word choice. Why not just Adam? When a person sins? Bereshit 2 describes:
(2:7) :וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה
And God created the man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life and the man became a living nefesh.
The nefesh is the aspect of us that is connected to the Divine. It is at the moment that God breathes into him that Adam becomes a nefesh. And the use of this word here should remind us that when a person makes a mistake, they are still a nefesh, they have in them a part of God. And Vayikra 4 has the process by which they can atone for that mistake.
I’ve spent a lot of time this week (and if i’m honest, probably always) in front of my keyboard, participating in and also watching conversations take place between people who it – sometimes seems -have forgotten that their conversation partner also has a nefesh. Perhaps it’s the false anonymity of the form of communication but given the public nature of social media discourse, we all have become, in a sense, public figures. How so? Not only is what we say broadcast more widely than in a private conversation, but also, as we do for celebrities we assume that we know personally more about each other than we really do.
If our society is going to hold our leaders, and ourselves to high expectations, then perhaps, as our parashah suggests, we should also all get better at learning to accept an admission of a mistake without it discrediting our entire view of the human being who made that mistake.
We are created in the image of God, but we are also human. We are going to do things that we regret. And we learn from our parashah that there ought to be a way to let each other own up to it, make amends, and learn from our mistakes.