PARSHAT VAYIKRA – PURIM

WHEN A LEADER SINS

“In case it is a chieftain who incurs guilt by doing unwittingly any of the things which by the commandment of his God the Lord ought not to be done, and he realizes guilt— or the sin of which he is guilty is made known—he shall bring as his offering a male goat without blemish.”  (Leviticus 4:22-23)

            If you follow the news at all, you know the problem.  Political leaders, whether on a local, national, or international level, seem to be breaking the law.  Corruption is rampant.  It is sad to see our elected officials standing before a judge, and some of them paying hefty fines or going to jail.  Maybe I am being naïve if I say that a person in a position of leadership ought to be held to a higher level.

            This is made clear in this week’s portion.  The Torah speaks of a variety of animal offerings that were part of daily practice in the ancient Temple.  Obviously, with no Temple, these offerings have fallen out of practice today.  But we can still learn from them.  One such sacrifice is the sin offering, an animal brought to the altar when someone has sinned. Such an offering served as an atonement, so that the sinner could return to God’s good graces.

            The portion first speaks of the High Priest who sins.  Then it speaks about the entire community sinning.  Third, it speaks about a political leader or chieftain who sins.  Only then does it speak of the offering of the average person.  The political leader must bring a more expensive offering (a male goat) than the offering of the average person (a female goat.)  Political leaders are held to a higher standard, and the Torah is more demanding regarding the requirements to find atonement.

            We all sin.  The Bible teaches, “For there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).  There must be a way to return to God’s good graces when we sin.  But when a political leader sins, the consequences are far more severe.  A political leader can lead an entire community astray.  That is why those in a position of power in government must be held to the highest ethical standards.

            That brings us to the story of Purim and a foolish king.  King Ahasuerus was a major political leader who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces.  In spite of these huge responsibilities, he spent the first chapter of the book throwing a drinking party, divorcing his wife Vashti for refusing to dance au natural for the leering men, and then holding a beauty contest to find a new queen.  Certainly he liked to drink and party.  But his greatest sin was the willingness to listen to his evil prime minister Haman.  Haman sought to murder all the Jews for following their own rules and their refusal to bow down to him.  Haman even paid a substantial bribe to the king to agree to his evil plan.  Only when Queen Esther revealed that she was a Jew and her people would be victims of Haman did the king realize his foolishness.

            In the end, the king permitted the Jews to defend themselves.  Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Esther’s cousin Mordecai and the Jews were victorious.  But the key line is in the end, the king appointed Mordecai as his new prime minister.  Finally, this foolish king displayed some wisdom and made the right choice.  Part of the message of Purim is when a political leader is irresponsible, that leader can allow evil to flourish.  The foolish king did not comprehend the evil plans of his prime minister.  Fortunately, in the end those plans were overturned.

            We all have the responsibility to behave in an ethical manner.  But a person in a position of political leadership has a greater responsibility.   That is the reason why Plato taught that the perfect Republic would be ruled by philosopher kings (and Plato even allowed philosopher queens).  To rule a community is to have wisdom. Whether a local mayor, a prime minister, a president, or a king, the behavior of a leader can determine the fate of a town or a nation.  After all, the Bible teaches, “Where the leaders lack vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).  We must hold our leaders to the highest standard.