Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

The news for days has been filled with tales of political and military brinkmanship between Putin and his Russian Army and the leaders of the Ukraine. The whole world has been watching and holding our collective breath for actual war to break out and lives to be lost on both sides. I am sure that those who are intimately involved with the conflict and the politically savvy on both sides could wax eloquent defending either the sovereignty of the Ukraine on the one hand or the legitimate political right of the Russians on the other to claim what each has been claiming in this dispute.

On the other hand, in the most meaningful sense, the underlying political issues and policy differences between Russia and the Ukraine are actually irrelevant in the larger scheme of life. What we are seeing is yet another example of the danger when political and personal hubris of leaders allows them to lead an entire nation or nations into the brink of war and beyond.

My point here is not to point the finger at Putin or really any specific political leader in either Russia or the Ukraine. I have been to both – Moscow and Kiev, and have travelled to Minsk, St. Petersberg (not only relatively recently, but back when it was still called “Leningrad”), along with Kishinev and a few other cities and towns in the former Soviet Union. As I travelled throughout this vast country, I was struck with both how different each section of the country was and of course how fundamentally similar every city and town in the world is in the end.

Buildings and architecture may vary, landscapes may be harsh or gentle, filled with rivers or banking on Oceans, towering with mountains or filled with forests, but the fundamental truth of life remains that with all the vast differences of flora and fauna, buildings and architecture, what matters most is that human beings remain essentially the same. We all have the same hopes and dreams. We all want our children to grow up in a world that is safe and nurturing, inspiring and encouraging. We want there to be peace among human beings and the opportunity for our dreams and plans to thrive and succeed and for life to have meaning and a sense of purpose no matter who we are, no matter what our language or culture, no matter whether we are Chinese or Korean, Arab or Israeli, American or Mexican or Moroccan.

This week’s Torah portion contains a fascinating section about how to deal with human error, guilt and sin. The Torah specifically talks about what to do when a leader, a king or a prince (or a president?) transgresses a commandment and suggests that as a leader by so doing he (it was always presumed that the leader was a “he” in the Torah), brings his entire community to transgression as well. The rabbinic commentators teach us that in every generation we get the leaders we deserve. That every leader who acts immorally, who makes decisions in haste that affect the entire community has the capacity to bring every single one of us down the path to disgrace and transgression because he represents us all.

The Torah recognized that everyone makes mistakes, even leaders, even kings and princes. It teaches that the true test of leadership is our ability to recognize those errors of judgment, call attention to them in public and ask forgiveness both from God and from the people we have hurt through our own imprudent actions. Great leaders do seek to gain expiation from their sins, but only when they are able to admit that a mistake has been made in the first place. Simply saying “I made a mistake in judgment and I am sorry” seems to be an almost gargantuan task for all, especially the most powerful among us. Yet most of the time, that simple step is the key to our own personal spiritual liberation, and when it comes to leaders, the key to forgiveness for the entire community as well.

How often in our modern day have we ever heard the president of a country, the ruler of a nation whether of Russia, North Korea, China, the Congo, Iran, Syria or a score of other adversarial countries, proclaim in public that they have sinned or have exercised poor judgment and put the lives of their own citizens in harm’s way? I would suggest never.

Even after more than 3,000 years, the wisdom of the Torah remains remarkable. Imagine if every leader took the words of this week’s portion to heart and was open enough and self-aware enough, and humble enough to recognize his own faults and need for controlling others, and admitted errors in judgment and asked forgiveness from his own people and those in other countries whom he has threatened. The world would be a radically different place, and our leaders would truly be role models that everyone in the world could look up to with respect and essential human dignity.

For the Torah, the first step along the path of repentance is the acknowledgment that we have done something wrong in the first place. Then we are each commanded to bring an “offering of the heart” to the priesthood and ask for forgiveness from God both for ourselves and our own failings, and for any others whose lives we hold in our own hands.

I think of the impact that such an admission might have on our rulers, on the political scene across the world, and then bring it back to my own life and imagine the impact such a willingness to accept that each of us makes mistakes might have on our own children as well. Our job as parents is to do our best to be ethical role models for our kids. Perhaps the place to start this week is with the opening words of this portion and this third book of the Torah – “Vayikra” – “And He called out.” Our own willingness to call attention to the difficult challenges we each face in life, and the mistakes that each of us inevitably make along the way is perhaps the best role models we can give our children as well. In this way we are fulfilling my fundamental rule of parenting, which is “Be the kind of adult you want your children to grow up to become.”

(Check out www.rebreuben.com , www.becomingjewishbook.com and www.interfaithrabbi.com for more commentaries, articles and books by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben).