Shabbat Greetings

This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30), describes the priestly rituals on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Among the sacrifices brought that day by both the High Priest and the children of Israel were chatat (sin) offerings, from a root word meaning “to aim and miss.” They were sacrifices made to atone for mistakes. What is noteworthy about this Torah portion is the message that, like the common people, the religious leader also had to acknowledge mistakes. Everyone was expected to take responsibility for their failings — but leaders first, leading by example.

And the text also tells us something strange: that the blood of the chatat offering also brought atonement for “their rebellious sins among all their mistakes.” (16:16) Evidently, even our deliberate infractions are a kind of mistake, for if we truly could see how much damage and hurt they cause, we would refrain from doing them

This Torah portion teaches us that acknowledging and atoning for mistakes is no less important than for deliberate sins. But shouldn’t we be cut some slack for our errors, committed without malice? Yet if I spill coffee on your best suit by accident, as opposed to throwing it on you, your suit is still ruined, and I would be expected to pay for cleaning it.

Some leaders in our society today understand this concept; unfortunately, many do not. The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has affected leadership on all sides. We have started looking at our leaders, elected officials, spiritual leaders and heads of institutions for some of these answers. We have begun praising or criticizing our leaders for how they are handling this crisis, especially with the protests on college campuses and the fear that Jewish students are feeling. This makes sense. Being a leader means taking responsibility, and some leaders have demonstrated incredible wisdom, foresight and compassion during this time. Others have not.

I want to focus on the leaders that have made mistakes. This is not going to be a popular opinion, but I nevertheless feel like it is important to say: Leaders make mistakes and that is okay. We even need to forgive our leaders for their mistakes and allow them to continue to lead. I say this because I believe it, but also because I believe that it is one of the central themes of the Torah and our portion on this Shabbat.

Unlike other religions, the Bible does not shy away from criticizing our leaders. Judaism clearly asserts that he founders of our faith were human, and as humans they were fallible. Our religion encourages us to analyze the decisions that Abraham, Moses and David made and to learn from their mistakes. This tradition of thinking critically about our leaders is predicated on the most sacred of Jewish beliefs –the belief in teshuva (repentance) – that people can learn from their mistakes and become better people. Just as you and I can do teshuva, so too can our leaders.

Every year, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people would go before the nation on Yom Kippur, and before God and admit to his mistakes, failings and weaknesses. And he would be forgiven. The Torah presents an amazing model for us which allows us to accept our leaders, even if they are flawed and even if they do make mistakes. And we can forgive them.

I am not suggesting that every mistake and every leader always needs to be forgiven. Today’s challenges has allowed us to see that certain leaders do not have the wisdom and judgment to continue to lead. We will be able to replace those leaders through a fair and democratic process. Nevertheless, as we begin to examine the choices that our leaders have made in the past few months, it is important for us to remember that our leaders are fallible humans, just like me and you. Just as the High Priest was able to make mistakes and be forgiven, so too can we forgive our leaders, especially in this time of crisis.