Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
What The Bible Says About Good Leadership
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
What does the Bible say about good leadership qualities? There were certainly leaders in the Bible who made mistakes, but this wasn't necessarily what defined them as good or bad leaders – it was how they reacted to their mistakes.
In this video, we explore Rashi's puzzling comment that a nation is lucky if it has a leader who brings a sacrifice for an accidental sin. Rabbi Fohrman contrasts the Torah's perspective of power and justice to the philosophy of Richard Nixon's famous line – "When the president does it, it is not illegal."
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores leadership in the Bible, and uncovers a message about the power of humility in leadership.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parsha Vayikra.
In this week's Parsha, we have a progression involving offerings, which are made for inadvertent wrong-doing. And our Parsha begins by giving the laws of an individual who commits an inadvertent wrong-doing and brings one of these offerings known as a chatat. A few verses later, we get to the laws of a Kohen Gadol, a high priest who sins inadvertently. Then, ten verses later, an event which makes even that look small - the entire Jewish people commits an inadvertent sin and brings a collective chatat offering.
Leaders in the Bible Who Made MistakesOur Sages interpret this as a case in which the Sanhedrin itself, the supreme law-making body, whose job it is to interpret the Torah, mistakenly rule that something is permitted when in fact it's forbidden. People act upon this mistaken ruling and, in such a case, the entire community brings a chatat.
Finally, ten verses or so later, we get to a fourth case: the executive branch, the Nasi, the leader who presides over the community commits an inadvertent transgression, and he brings a chatat for that sin. Interestingly, when the Torah tells us about this case, it's in the words "asher nasi yekhata," when a Nasi shall sin, the beginning word there is 'asher.' Asher means 'that'. Rashi, commenting on this, notes the similarity between the word 'asher' - alef-shin-resh - and the word 'ashrei', alef-shin-resh-yud. 'Ashrei' means fortunate, Rashi comments.
"Fortunate is the generation whose leader brings a chatat offering."
Whose leader is concerned enough with the right and the good and cases when they are at fault and they bring such an offer. I want to dwell with you for a moment on the implications of that Rashi.
Examples of Good – and Bad – Leadership QualitiesI remember, back as a child, visiting my grandparents. The television would constantly be on and no matter what channel you were on, it was always the same thing: the Watergate Hearings.
[On TV: "….my conclusions, rather it's interesting in the facts that I know them."]
The Watergate hearings eventually drove President Nixon from office. And afterwards, when I was just a little bit older, I got to watch David Frost interviewing former President Nixon about the Watergate scandal.
Frost: So, what in a sense you are saying is that, there are certain situations and the Houston plan - that part of it was one of them - where the President can decide that it's in the best interest of the nation or something, and do something illegal?
Nixon: Oh, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.
Frost: By definition.
When the President does it, it's not illegal. And right there, in an instant, you have the crux of the matter that the Torah is dealing with here: 'When the President does it, is it still illegal?' The Torah's answer, emphatically, is YES.
What Does the Bible Say About Good Leadership Qualities?Just because you are at the top of the society, doesn't mean that you get to make the laws. Might, in essence, does not make right. There's a higher law to which you are accountable. 'Ashrei' – fortunate, is the nation whose leaders understand that; whose leaders are willing to subjugate themselves by bringing a chatat when they view themselves to be in violation of that higher law.
When you think about these opposing pulls, the interest of power on the one hand and the interest of the good and the right and the moral and the just on the other hand, we tend to think of those as in a kind of an irreconcilable tension with each other. But I don't think that's really the case.
If I am in power, if I am a President, a Chief Executive or something like that, I can believe that my power would be diminished in cases in which I yield to that which is right. If it gets in the way of my power; if it doesn't allow me to achieve what I want to achieve. But in fact, that's actually not true. In cases such as this, sometimes your power is enhanced by your willingness not to exercise it.
Qualities and Characteristics of Good Leaders in the BibleThe New York Times recently reported about a high school quarterback that broke the record for yards passed in a single season on the last pass of the season. But after the game, the quarterback realized that something was wrong and found that his coach had conspired with the coach of the opposing team to fix the final play. When finding that out, the high school quarterback wrote a letter to the High School Commission on sports, asking them to strike the last pass from the records.
In so doing, did he sacrifice his power, or in a certain way, even enhance it? Not only did this quarterback give in to the good, the right and the just; but in so doing, in yielding power to justice, I think he actually increased his power, maybe not on the football field, but certainly off of it.
Ashrei, fortunate is the generation in which the mighty lay themselves low before that which is good and that which is right. Happy is the generation whose Nasi brings a chatat offering.
The Bible's Principle of Humility in LeadershipNot only is such a generation blessed with a Nasi who is good, with a Nasi who is powerful; but it is blessed with a 'Nasi' who can marry the good and the powerful to achieve something truly special.
The union of both of these qualities – ironically, the willingness to sacrifice power through admission of wrong – can confer a kind of moral legitimacy which is very powerful indeed.