Updated: Apr 8, 2021
When we hear about a true leader, we think of many things. They might bee inspiring or charismatic. They may possess a tremendous and inspiring vision for the future. They may be enormously self-possessed or disciplined. They almost always profoundly care for others. What we do not often think of is their ability to own up to mistakes. And yet, there is, perhaps, no more important trait in leadership.
This week we will begin reading the book of Vayikra, which opens up with long lists of sacrifices to be brought to the Temple. Those sacrifices will form the centre of the Israelites' religious and spiritual world throughout the period of the Temple and remain hugely significant to this day. Those sacrifices are premised largely on the idea of being aware of and acknowledging mistakes.
However, there are special sacrifices for leaders to bring when they make mistakes. And this makes sense. When leaders make mistakes the consequences are far more serious. Leadership mistakes can be corrosive, they can change the culture in dangerous ways, and they can hurt others far more than the mistakes of ordinary people. For this reason, the Torah gave them a special route to acknowledging their mistakes and coming back from them, a different route that is far more public.
We all make mistakes. The difference between leader and followers is in how we deal with them. When a public figure does something wrong and acknowledges that wrong publically, it strengthens our faith in their good intentions, in their concern for us and for the truth, and in their integrity. It is this crucial resource, public faith, which can be either irrevocably damaged by the errors of our leaders or hugely strengthened. As we read these parshiyot, let's all be leaders in our own lives. Let's learn to acknowledge when we do something wrong, and we, and our society, will be overwhelmingly strengthened.