Rashbam: Teaching Atonement (Vayikra)

The book of Leviticus takes us on a deep dive into the world of sacrifices, the sins sacrifices atone for, and the priests who handle the ritual offering of the sacrifices. Scintillating.

After a lengthy introduction to various types of sacrificial offerings each corresponding to different reasons why a person might want or need to offer a sacrifice, attention turns to the priests themselves, and what happens if they are the ones who mess up.

In Leviticus 4:3 we read that “If the anointed priest sins to the detriment of the people (l’ashmat ha’am), he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to God.”

What exactly is meant by the phrase “to the detriment of the people?” Rashbam first refers to the standard rabbinic explanation.

In Talmud Bavli Horayot, the rabbis explained that the rules regarding the sinning priest are equivalent to the rules regarding sins of the people.

The Talmud’s take is that we are meant to learn that just because the priests are special doesn’t mean they get special rules. They too have to follow the ritual rules of atoning for mistakes. Rashbam then gives his own understanding of what the phrase means.

However, following the plain meaning of Scripture , the verse means: Since it says concerning the priests [in general] that they are the ones who “will teach Your laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10) – and how much more so does this apply to the High Priest, who is considered by the public to be an expert – accordingly, if that priest sins in his teaching, causing the people also to sin with him, then he shall offer for the sin a bull…” (Martin Lockshin’s translation)

Rather than this verse being a general statement about when a priest sins, Rashbam restricts the sins to a specific circumstance. In Lockshin’s words, “Since priests are meant to be instructors of Torah, he argues, priests who teach improperly lead the people to sin… Concerning which sins of the priest are we speaking? Concerning those sins that lead l’ashmat ha’am, to the sin of the people.”

To me, the relevant aspect of the priest for us today is precisely as a teacher, and in particular as a teacher who holds symbolic power in the community. Those who offer guidance should never forget the power of their influence and the potential damage that even an innocent mistake can cause.

In his book Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein brought to my attention research that suggests that as people are promoted, they have increasing blind spots around how they influence the culture around them. When you are lower in the hierarchy, you are highly attuned to the cues given by those with power, because your survival in the group may depend on accurately reading desires and intentions of those who could kick you out. But as you gain more formal authority as a supervisor or team leader, you lose that sharp awareness. So many people in positions of power consciously or more often unconsciously create the environment around them.

The Talmudic reading simply says that the rules should be the same for everyone. Rashbam, however, more pointedly directs our attention to how the ones in power, the intentional and unintentional teachers of what it means to fit in, must take extra care with sins in this area. Perhaps while offering a sacrifice personally, rather than on behalf of others, the priest had a chance to revisit the role of those with less power and to regain thoughtful perspective as an influencer and leader.

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.