One of the tragedies of the human condition is the inability to admit our mistakes. Even when faced with compelling arguments to the contrary man has the amazing ability to explain away the facts. Thus the first step, and a hard one indeed in the repentance process, is recognition of the sin.
Sefer Vayikra focuses on the theme of korbanot, usually translated (incorrectly) as sacrifices. The word korban literally means to come close, with the korbanot a means to establishing a closer relationship both to man and to G-d. In describing the korbanot, the Torah repeatedly uses the phrase reich neechoach, an appeasing fragrance. The uniqueness of the sense of smell is that it's a harbinger of things to come. When we smell something enticing, we eagerly await its enjoyment. When one walks into a home on Friday afternoon the pleasant aroma foreshadows the good meal to come. When one brings a korban with its appeasing fragrance, G-d eagerly awaits "a new person". The korban announces that an improved character and heightened awareness of G-d and man are near. As the prophets have repeatedly told us, a korban without positive change, teshuva, is at best a meaningless act.
"When the leader commits a sin by inadvertently violating certain of G-d's commandments he incurs guilt (Vayikra 4:22)." Our commentaries note that instead of using the more common phrase im, if, the Torah uses the phrase asher, when. The Torah instructs what to do when, not if, a leader sins. It is impossible to be in a position of leadership and not sin. So many difficult decisions, conflicting interests, pressures of the moment, untold stress and difficult followers make sin inevitable. Sadly, too many leaders have fallen victim to and actually believe the marketing slogans they have created for themselves.
The Torah recognizes this reality and it is for this reason that Judaism places so much emphasis on public figures having the proper motivation in attempting to carry out their holy work. "All who exert themselves for the community should exert themselves for the sake of heaven, for then the merit of the community’s forefathers aids them and their righteousness endures forever (Pirkei Avot 2:2)." We are not only forgiven but are rewarded for making honest mistakes, mistakes emanating from a desire to help the community.
Even if one’s attempts are not met with success the reward is great. “And all those who faithfully deal with the needs of the community, The Holy One, blessed be He, shall reward them and remove from them every disease and heal their entire body and forgive every iniquity and send blessings and success in all the work of their hands, together with all Israel their brothers, and let us say amen” (Siddur). These wonderful leaders have taken on a task fraught with peril but absolutely necessary for our people. They need our prayers and even more so, our support.
Even when leaders are not making mistakes, they will inevitably hurt some people. It is impossible to lead otherwise. If, to use a financial example, more money is budgeted for education that means less for defence, and more for defence means less for health care, and more for health care means less for research and development and more for…means less for….
Thus the leader who has a personal agenda, engages in petty politics or has ulterior motives is hurting people for one’s personal reasons. That is a sin the consequences of which are almost unimaginable.
The key to proper leadership can be seen in the use of the phrase emunah, faith. Those who truly believe in G-d, who understand (especially with Pesach coming soon) that we are servants of G-d are the ones who can be “osek btzarchei tzibbur b’emunah, faithfully deal with the needs of the community".
Knowing one has made a mistake and having the courage to say so are two different things. All too often it is the notion of saving face, or one’s political future, that becomes paramount.
The truly great leader is the one who is not afraid to say I was wrong. Even, sometimes especially, great leaders have great difficulty in admitting they have made a mistake. Even harder is to change course and change one’s policies upon realizing they are mistaken. Noting a play on the words asher, when, and ashrei, blessed, Rashi comments that “blessed is the generation in which the leaders seek atonement for their inadvertent sins, how much more so for their intentional sins”.
But for leaders to do that they need a “blessed generation”, people who are understanding and forgiving of mistakes. People who actually reward those who can admit their mistakes and work hard to correct them. If G-d can do so surely, we can too.