The Torah in Parashat Vayikra tells of the various sin-offerings that are required in different situations of wrongdoing. The first sacrifice in this category discussed in this section is the offering known as the par kohen mashiach – the bull offered by a kohen gadol if he commits a transgression. In introducing this case, the Torah speaks of a kohen gadol who commits a sin “le-ashmat ha-am” – literally, “for the guilt of the nation” (4:3). This is a very difficult expression to interpret, and has been explained in various different ways by the commentators.
Torat Kohanim, as Rashi cites, interprets this verse in halakhic terms, explaining that the phrase “le-ashmat ha-am” establishes parity between this sacrifice and the par hei’aleim davar shel tzibur – the sacrifice required when the people sin as a result of a mistaken ruling of the Sanhedrin. Later in this parasha, the Torah requires the Sanhedrin to offer an atonement sacrifice if they had issued an erroneous ruling on the basis of which the people inadvertently violated a capital offense (for which one is liable to kareit). The words “le-ashmat ha-am” establish that the kohen gadol brings a sacrifice in a similar case to that which requires the Sanhedrin to bring a sacrifice – namely, when the kohen gadol mistakenly determines that something is permissible, and acted upon that erroneous decision.
Rashi then cites a different explanation from the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 5:6), which interprets “le-ashmat ha-am” to mean that the kohen gadol’s misdeeds result in the nation’s “guilt.” As the people depend on the kohen gadol’s service in the Mikdash for their atonement, his unworthiness directly affects them, and they become “guilty.” In a slightly different vein, Seforno explains that if the kohen gadol errs, the people are partly to blame, as the nation receives the leaders it deserves, such that the leaders’ wrongdoing reflects the shortcomings of the nation. Others, including the Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni, explain that the kohen gadol’s mistaken halakhic rulings result in “ashmat ha-am” – the nation’s guilt, because the people looked to the kohanim for religious guidance. Moshe famously proclaimed about the tribe of Levi in blessing the tribe before his death, “Yoru mishpatekha le-Yaakov ve-toratekha le-Yisrael” (Devarim 33:10) – that their job (among other things) is to teach the people Torah. Therefore, the kohen gadol’s halakhic misjudgment results in the nation’s “guilt,” as they will naturally follow his erroneous ruling.
An entirely different explanation is offered by Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, in Or Rashaz. He suggests that “le-ashmat ha-am” means the people are held responsible for the leader’s wrongdoing if they noticed him acting improperly but failed to hold him to account, thus allowing him to continue. According to the Alter of Kelm, the Torah here speaks of a situation where the people could have protested the kohen gadol’s wrongful conduct, but out of respect for him and his position of stature, they remained silent. Hence, they bear a degree of guilt for his sinful behavior. As important as it is to show respect to people in prominent positions, this respect must not lead to an attitude of indifference towards these figures’ misconduct.
Interestingly, Rav Simcha Zissel views this case as an example of a broader concept - the need to balance important ideals and values. Just as the ideal of respecting religious leaders does not override the ideal of objecting to these leaders’ wrongful behavior, similarly, all other religious values are, in certain instances, counterbalanced by other, conflicting concerns. One example noted by the Alter of Kelm in this context is the halakha that an employee may not take time which is committed to his employer for prayer. As important as prayer is, it does not justify taking away work time for which one is being paid. All values are subject to limitations, and must occasionally give away to equally important values in situations of conflict. And thus in the case of an important public figure, too, the importance of showing such a figure respect must not overshadow the need to demand high moral and religious standards from our leaders.