In the fifth aliya of this week’s Parsha, the Torah describes the procedure for atonement if various high officials sin unintentionally in matters that when done intentionally would carry a death penalty from Heaven. Those officials are the Kohein Gadol – the High priest, the Great Sanhedrin, and the king.
If the Kohein Gadol interpreted a law incorrectly and sinned unintentionally based upon that error, he brings a sin offering. If the Great Sanhedrin decided a law incorrectly and the people sinned by following the decision of the Sanhedrin, the Sanhedrin must bring a sin offering. Finally, if the king sinned unintentionally, he must bring a sin offering.
Now, when we read the words of the Torah carefully, we notice that the wording differs slightly in one of these three instances. Regarding the Kohein Gadol sinning, the Torah states, “If the anointed Kohein sins . . .” – he may or may not sin. On several occasions, The Talmud teaches us that the Kohanim were careful. The Kohanim worked in the Bais Hamikdash – G-d’s house so-to-speak – so they paid closer attention to what they were doing, more so than people outside the Bais Hamikdash. In addition, there were many kohanim working in the Bais Hamikdash. Therefore, the chance of a kohein making an error was not too great and the Torah words it such, “IF the Kohein Gadol sins.”
Regarding the Great Sanhedrin, the Torah uses similar wording, “and if the entire congregation of Israel will make a mistake.” The Great Sanhedrin was composed of the 71 greatest scholars among the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. As great as any individual might me, he or she can make an error. It is a part of being human. However, the more people with whom one consults, the less likelihood of that person making a mistake. So, when one had the 71 greatest people in Israel deciding a law, the odds of the entire body of the Sanhedrin erring was - at the most – slim. Nevertheless, the Torah teaches us that it could happen despite the odds against it. Therefore, the Torah once again uses the word “and if the entire congregation of Israel will make a mistake.”
However, regarding the king, the Torah changes its wording – “When a prince sins unintentionally.” The Rabbis teach us that the prince in this verse is the king. Due to political pressures and the basic notion of the office, rulers of awesome power inevitably make incorrect decisions. So, the Torah teaches us this idea by the wording, ”when the king sins” and not if the king sins.
The Tanach is very clear that even the greatest of the kings made mistakes. But, that did not make them bad or evil people. They just made mistakes.
Rashi comments upon the verse about the King sinning, “Praised is the generation whose leader sets his heart to bring atonement for his unintentional sin, all the more so for one who admits his intentional sin.” It is not that if the ruler sins, he or she is evil. Rather, is he responsible for his action? Can he admit, “I was wrong.”
In Judaism, nobody is above the law. The question is, how do we react to those mistakes? Do we take them to heart, attempt to correct them and raise ourselves to be bigger people, or do we keep moving on with our lives as though nothing went wrong and watch matters begin to spiral downward?
In the United States, the constitution sets up a series of checks and balances among the various branches of government – the Executive Branch, the Judicial Branch and the Legislative Branch. That did not originate with the United States. It is reflective of Torah ideas. Torah law set up a series of checks and balances among the leaders. The king also had a system of checks and balances. He could not perform certain duties without the permission of the Sanhedrin . . . there were times he had to consult with G-d via the Urim V’Tumim through the Kohein Gadol . . . he had to answer to the Prophets . . . he was not above the law other than certain executive rights such as eminent domain and matters of honor and awe.
Nobody – not even the king - should think that he is perfect. The Torah emphasizes that people are human and leaders are fallible. Just because a person makes a mistake, it is not enough to do him in. The Torah’s message for all time is that although – in the words of the great Biblical scholar Mel Brooks – “it’s good to be the king”, by recognizing that there is a Higher power, he will be a good king.