Posted on June 7, 2002 (5760) By Rabbi Yaakov Menken | Series: | Level:

“When the Prince shall sin, and do one of the Commandments of HaShem your G-d which shall not be done, in error, and be guilty…” [4:22]

In this passage, the Torah discusses the sin-offerings of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), the High Court, the King (beginning with the verse above), and then any individual. Sin-offerings were brought when a person made an error and accidentally violated certain Commandments.

In three of the four cases, the Torah introduces the subject by saying “if” X shall sin, using the Hebrew word “im.” In the case of the King, however, the first word is “asher,” meaning “when.” Why does the Torah change its expression here? If everyone can sin, then let the Torah say “when” in every case. If the Torah does not wish to convey the message that sinning is inevitable, on the other hand, then let it universally use the word “if.” Why must it imply that the King is more likely to sin?

Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, quotes a compelling Medrash. This is one line of solid gold — and never more obviously so than in our era. Says the Medrash: “asher,” when, is used to hint to the language of “ashrei,” happy. “Happy is the generation whose Prince is careful to bring atonement for his errors — all the more so, that he regrets his deliberate errors.”

A happy generation is one whose leaders are willing to admit their errors, rather than denying their crimes. We are all human, and people we admire should be people who are cognizant of their own limitations, and who are trying to improve rather than claiming perfection. One can only improve if one recognizes his or her own flaws; one who denies errors can never become righteous, because he or she sees nothing wrong with the sins of the present.

Is it necessary, though, for a person to admit error in order to be able to encourage others to behave correctly? In a word, yes. Otherwise people will notice the contradiction between his actions and his statements, or, worse, his desperate efforts to avoid blame.

Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, was once traveling in a wagon, and during the trip the driver unloaded (as it were) his pain and sorrow upon the esteemed Rabbi. His horse had fallen and died, and while the people of his city had gathered money to buy him another horse, he still was barely making ends meet. Asked the driver, “What happened? What did I do to deserve this?”

There is no reason, the Rabbi responded, to question G-d — “G-d is righteous in all His ways.” [Psalm 145] And although there are many reasons why people undergo trials and suffering, having nothing to do with their errors, sometimes the concept that G-d repays a person “measure for measure” does come into play. And the Rabbi surmised that this might be the case here. “Perhaps,” he said, “you are not being entirely righteous before G-d, either. You fail to perform the Commandments between one person and another properly, particularly in your financial dealings. You set one price for the trip, and then once you are traveling in the middle of nowhere, you ask for more. You graze your horse in other people’s fields. Perhaps you are being repaid from Heaven, and should feel fortunate that you are being repaid in this world, rather than the next!” [In Jewish thought, it is understood that any suffering in this world is preferable to the cleansing that our souls might otherwise require before enjoying the World to Come.]

“But if so,” the driver replied, “what about you? Why was your bag stolen from the station in Vilna just two days ago?”

Now, what would you expect the Chafetz Chaim to say? Or, more to the point, what would you expect a “leading figure” to say?

“And you think that I am righteous,” averred the Chafetz Chaim with all sincerity (he was in fact known as one of the most righteous people of his generation). “I also sin in my financial dealings. I am involved in sales of my books, and sometimes there is a torn or misprinted page. I do try to go over every page of every book, but it is impossible to find every error. The purchasers are embarrassed to tell me — and thus I came to my punishment.”

It was absolutely clear to the Chafetz Chaim that this was honestly the case, that he deserved the punishment of the stolen bag because of his own sins. And because this was true, he was able to make a tremendous impression upon the wagon driver, encouraging him to see the errors that _he_ was making. If the Chafetz Chaim had instead denied any wrongdoing, the entire impact of his lesson would have been lost.

Who are our leaders? Do we look towards people who strive toward perfection, and admit imperfection, at every turn? Or do we admire people because of their accomplishments in other areas — who are very likely to deny all faults instead of acknowledging their flaws?

One could provide examples from sports, entertainment, and of course politics as well (admitting error only when cornered is not the example we seek), but it is unnecessary. We know that the people who others “turn out to see” are not greeted for their righteousness. Even Mother Theresa became known because of her Nobel Prize, and the Pope because he was elected — they are not sought after because people are impressed with their character.

Happy is the generation — and happy are the people — who admire and look towards truly great people who admit their flaws, continue to grow, and draw us upwards with them!