The Blame Is on Who?

Throughout history, leaders made grievous mistakes, often more pronounced during times of war. George Bush’s misjudgment of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, are among these historical blunders. Yet, the leader alone might not be to blame. According to the Torah, the community shares in responsibility.

Even in the Torah leadership made great errors. One of King David’s sins was at a time of war when he ordered census forbidden by the Torah. As a result of this sin, tens of thousands of David’s troops died. Could the community also share in responsibility for David’s sin? When the people learned of the improper census, perhaps they should have disobeyed.

Early in Leviticus, the Torah addresses atonement for mistakes by leaders. A sacrifice, called a hatat, atoned for sins. In particular, the largest Hatat sacrifice, a bull, was offered for the misdeed of a leader. In Chapter 4 verse 13 of Leviticus, the Torah focuses on leadership errors and their impact on the public: “If it is the community leadership of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by יהוה’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize guilt, when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a sin offering.”

Dissecting this verse, first, there was an error by the community leader. Second, the error was unknown to the community. Third, the community violated a Commandment relying upon the leader’s error. Fourth, the error became known. Finally, the congregation makes a sin offering. In this way, the community was also answerable for the leader’s error.

In modern times, George Bush directed an attack on Iraq based on bad intelligence. Initially, most Americans supported the war against Iraq. Soon we knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Our leadership’s error led to the decimation of a country and over 200,000 deaths, including American soldiers. Could the American people also be culpable for the President’s nightmarish blunder? Perhaps our role was to protest and demand an end to the war. Thus, having failed to raise our voices, was the community accountable?

We are now in the throes of Israel’s longest war. Hamas unleashed a brutal attack on October 7.  1,200 Israelis died, others were wounded and 253 were taken captive. Hamas’ savagery and immorality traumatized Jews everywhere.

Yet, the Torah offers that we consider another facet of this insidious war. We may be uncomfortable criticizing Israel, but the Netanyahu government made mistakes. They ignored intelligence about Hamas’ ability to launch an attack. The border with Gaza was poorly patrolled. The Israeli government turned a blind eye to the flow of money from Qatar to Hamas. These transgressions became known after the war began. These errors do not excuse Hamas’ evil. Yet, in the context of the Jewish law of wars, Israel’s response is problematic. If Israel transgressed Jewish law because of the errors of its leaders, the Torah calls to mind that all Israelis may need to make a sin offering.

An Israeli teacher I cherish recently spoke about her sense of responsibility. She believes that Bibi Netanyahu is corrupt. For months she protested in the streets of Jerusalem. She said Israel now suffers for the sins of its leaders. Currently, her children fight in the Army. Over 100 hostages remain captive. Israel is grieving. Yet, my teacher wondered if she bears some responsibility, asking if she could have protested even more. She was mirroring the Torah.

People suffer for the mistakes and the malevolence of leaders. When leaders’ errors become known and the country has violated God’s laws, the community may be culpable for the failure to object. Whether in Israel or the United States, we have power. We are voters. Together, we can demand accountability. We can demonstrate and our voices can rise in protest. Merely complaining about bad leaders will not suffice. And if we fail to respond, the Torah teaches we share in the blame.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame