Parashat Vayikra: The two hardest words

Our hassidic sages linked Purim to Yom Ki-Purim, since both are days of personal confession.

wine glass drawing 88 (photo credit:)
wine glass drawing 88
(photo credit: )
'When wine goes in, secrets come out," the saying goes. Purim is the festival of wine, and the festival of honesty. Purim is when each of us must confront him/her self, without our usual masks. Wine unmasks each of us, revealing our true personalities. Hence our hassidic sages linked Purim to Yom Ki-Purim, since both are days of personal confession, when we each see ourselves as we really are. A story is told about an Israeli teenager who had only recently become religiously very observant - and was full of questions. He came from a secular American family which had immigrated to Israel only five years before, and his mother still prepared a stuffed-turkey dinner complete with pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce in honor of the American Thanksgiving. The ba'al tshuva approached his Mea Shearim-trained, 10th-generation Jerusalemite rebbe: "I'm sorry," he stammered, "and perhaps my question is out of place, but am I required to recite the ya'aleh ve'yavo prayer on Thanksgiving if I am celebrating it with my family?" The Rebbe looked surprised. "What is Thanksgiving?" he asked his newfound hassid. The young man then approached a very knowledgeable history teacher, whose classes in the secular high school were the highlight of his day. "I'm sorry, but might you know if one must say the ya'aleh veyavo prayers on Thanksgiving?" The amused instructor was taken aback. "What's ya'aleh ve'yavo?" he asked. The student was frustrated but not deterred. A government minister lived in his town, and happened to be home from the Knesset. Our student ran up to him, almost poking his bodyguard in the eye. "I'm sorry," he began, "but perhaps someone as important as you might know. Do observant Jews say ya'aleh ve'yavo on Thanksgiving?" The Israeli minister looked confused. "What's 'I'm sorry'?" he asked. For those of us living in Israel, the story hits too close to home to be amusing. It has been two years since we forced the brave pioneers of Gush Katif to leave their homes and jobs for the peace which unilateral disengagement from Gaza was supposed to have brought us - and all we got was Hamas, al-Qaida, Kassams and Katyushas, with thousands of those pioneers still homeless and unemployed. And still no Israeli politician has said, "I'm sorry." Incompetent ministers and military leaders led us to the first war we've lost since 1948 - but still no word of apology. Scandal and sexual corruption have been found in our most exalted offices - but no one admits guilt. And as usual, the timeless biblical portions of the week cry out their messages. Obviously, admitting guilt and honestly confronting oneself is painful. Were it not so, confession would not count as the very essence of repentance (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 1, 1). But only after an individual honestly faces his weaknesses and hypocrisies can the healing begin. And this is what emerges from the week's portion of Vayikra. In biblical times the individual would bring special sin offerings if he transgressed - but a sin offering without heartfelt repentance was considered an abomination by God, like ritual punctiliousness without moral rectitude (Isaiah 1). And after the Bible sets the stage by informing us that human beings will - as a direct result of the complex animal-angel nature of human personality - sin (Lev. 4:1, 2), who is the first sinner to be singled out? The high priest himself, guardian of the Temple. According to our Bible, to err is indeed human; no one is infallible. And the Bible emphasizes that "if the high priest sins, it is a transgression on the whole nation" - a stain on our national escutcheon (4:3, Rashi ad loc.). On the Day of Forgiveness, the first individual to confess his guilt and request purification is the high priest. Indeed, the first word to escape his mouth on that most exalted day of the year is "anna" - "please," a cry of personal anguish (as explained by my revered teacher, R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik). Next in line for sinning and admission of guilt is the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land, interpreters of the Divine law. When these 71 lawmakers sin in judgment, all of Israel automatically sins, because the judges are "the eyes of the nation," entrusted with seeing that justice is done throughout society. The elders of the congregation as well as the high priest must share in the guilt of the Sanhedrin, because they should have prevented the miscarriage of justice (Lev. 4:13, 15, 16). And the third who is singled out to confess and atone is the prince (nasi), the president, the prime minister. Amazingly, whereas the Bible uses the word "if" regarding transgressions by the high priest and Sanhedrin, it uses "when" regarding the nasi. Why is the No. 1 wielder of power most likely to sin? Is it because he comes to believe he is above the law, that what is good for him is automatically good for the state? Is it because he must rely on popular support, and so may give the people not what they need but what they want, according to the latest opinion poll? King Saul didn't wait for Samuel to begin the public sacrifice, and lost the kingdom (I Samuel 13). King David, on the other hand, committed adultery and then sent Bathsheba's husband to the front lines to die, and yet remained the Messiah's progenitor. (II Samuel 12). Why? Because Saul attempted to justify himself and blame the nation, whereas David admitted his guilt and wept before God. Rashi (Lev. 4:22) links the Hebrew asher ("when" the nasi sins) to the Hebrew ashrei, fortunate: "Fortunate is the generation whose nasi bends his heart and mind toward seeking forgiveness for his sins." Those in high office who are too proud or too blind to seek forgiveness ought not remain in high office! And during Purim all of us must learn who we really are, and for what and from whom we must beg forgiveness. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.