When Leaders Have Moral Failings

The commandment to the priests to purify themselves of sin before God reminds us to hold our leaders accountable to act ethically.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

Violent Divine retribution. The slaughter of animals. The sprinkling of blood. Sexual perversions. Arcane rituals. Shame and atonement.

These are not topics culled from “yellow journals” or television “news magazines,” but rather from the Torah portion, Ahare Mot, or “after the death…” Passages such as these have often been difficult for moderns to digest, let alone difficult to comprehend.

After all, why should we care to read about how the ancient priesthood of Judaism conducted ritual sacrifices, the slaughter of animals, or how to dash blood about? And why would anyone care to read, in precise detail, about seemingly arcane rites of purification, the priestly wardrobe? And does anyone really need to be told not to engage in bestiality?

Easy to Dismiss

It is easy to respond patronizingly to such texts and to explain them away as remnants of our primitive past. But “difficult” texts like Parshat Ahare Mot contain meaning for the contemporary world — and even for social action itself.

The death referred to in the title of this portion refers to the deaths of the High Priest Aaron’s sons, who were punished by God after offering up “strange” sacrifices. This portion begins with descriptions of priestly sacrificial rites, outlines priestly conduct for Yom Kippur, and details forbidden sexual acts. We no longer offer up animal sacrifices to God, but the ethical insights of this text are eternal: it is not just about ritual purity, but moral purity as well.

Most especially, Ahare Mot is concerned with the purity of leaders. The text directs Aaron, the progenitor of the Jewish priesthood, that “from all your sins shall you be clean before God.”

We might imagine that Aaron, alongside Moses the leader of the Jewish people in their exodus from slavery and their journey toward revelation, would not need to be told to behave in a pure fashion. And yet not only did Aaron’s sons cross the boundaries of Judaism, but Aaron himself was also a key participant in the idolatrous act of worshiping the golden calf. Leaders — even religious leaders — can clearly behave inappropriately and, unfortunately, unethically.

Even religious leaders who seem beyond reproach, the very leaders who seem to transcend the moral weaknesses of most human beings, are themselves sometimes subject to the same ethical challenges of humanity as a whole. But for many of us, including this writer, the moral failings of leaders are far more difficult to absorb than the sins of the proverbial “average Joe.”

As the sages lament, power can stain those who possess it, and “would that on leaving the world” leaders be “as free of sin as upon entering it.” From financial to sexual improprieties, we are endlessly bombarded with new revelations of our leaders’ failings. This is also true of our own Jewish communal leadership, and not simply that of society as a whole.

Ethics Matter

This Torah portion is in part a warning that no matter how charismatic, no matter how skilled, and no matter how successful in serving a cause, a leader’s ethics matter. No matter how much money is raised or how many people are served by a leader, his or her ethics have an impact upon the entire community and upon our community’s moral agenda. And efforts on behalf of tikkun olam (repairing the world) cannot somehow cancel out an individual’s ethical — or unethical — conduct.

This lesson, unfortunately, needs to be reiterated over and over again — not only in public life at large, but also in our own community. If the priests of antiquity needed to cleanse themselves of their sins, so too do our contemporary leaders — even, or especially, those identified with social action, and with Jewish causes at large — need to be ethically whole. Let us not morally compartmentalize our personal and common moral agenda. May all of us, leaders and “regular Joes” alike, strive to be clean before God.

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

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