One of the sacrifices discussed in Parashat Vayikra is the par he’alem davar shel tzibur, the special sin-offering that the Sanhedrin must bring after issuing a ruling which they later realized was incorrect. The Torah introduces this law by describing a case where “the entire congregation of Israel erred, and something was concealed from the eyes of the congregation…” (4:13). As Rashi explains, citing Torat Kohanim, this refers to an incorrect ruling issued by the Sanhedrin permitting something which is, in fact, forbidden and for which one is liable to the severe punishment of kareit. If such a ruling was issued and people committed the wrongful act in question on the basis of this ruling, then the Sanhedrin must bring a special sacrifice, which the Torah proceeds to describe.
The Ba’al Ha-turim notes that there is only one other instance in the entire Tanakh where the word “yishgu” (“err,” or “stray”) is used. The prophet Yechezkel (34:6) sharply condemns the failed leadership of his time, comparing them to shepherds who negligently disregard their flock: “My sheep stray [yishgu] in all the mountains and on every tall hill; My sheep are scattered throughout the land, and there is no one looking after or searching [for them].” The connection between these two contexts, the Ba’al Ha-turim observes, lies in the fact that both deal with failures of leadership. The Torah here in Parashat Vayikra addresses a case where the highest halakhic body issued an incorrect ruling, thus leading the people towards forbidden conduct, just as Yechezkel censures the nation’s “shepherds” for their ineffective leadership.
This connection drawn by the Ba’al Ha-turim between these two contexts underscores the stark difference between them, as they speak of two distinct failures of leadership. Yechezkel describes criminal neglect, charging that the leaders enjoyed the perks and benefits of leadership without assuming the responsibilities of leadership. They simply did not care about the people who relied on them or for their needs, and allowed them to be “scattered throughout the land,” lost and misguided. Here in Parashat Vayikra, by contrast, the Torah speaks of a mistaken ruling. The Sanhedrin did not knowingly neglect its duties, but rather reached an incorrect decision. This is a much different kind of failure than the failure of neglect and indifference described by Yechezkel.
By associating these two failures of leadership, the Ba’al Ha-turim perhaps conveys the message that for people in positions of leadership, an “innocent” mistake is not entirely “innocent.” When a person who exerts a great deal of influence needs to reach a decision, the stakes are especially high, and extreme care must be taken and every effort must be made to decide correctly. Certainly, a Sanhedrin that issues an incorrect ruling is not guilty of the kind of neglect described by Yechezkel, and innocent, honest mistakes will occasionally happen. However, the association drawn between these two verses warns that rash or shoddy decision-making reflects an attitude of indifference. If leaders truly understood the importance of their role and the gravity of their duty, they would ensure to invest the time and effort needed to avoid avoidable mistakes.
On some level, this applies to all of us, and not only to leaders. While mistakes are an inevitable part of life, not all mistakes are innocent. Very often, our mistakes are the result of insufficient concern. While we of course cannot expect to never make mistakes, we must ensure, at very least, that we care enough to try hard to avoid them.