In the Laws of Offerings, the Bible Teaches an Important Lesson about the Perils of Political Power

March 19 2021

In this week’s reading of Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5), the Torah details a number of ritual sacrifices, among them those brought to atone for an accidental sin. These come in four varieties, dependent on the person seeking atonement: for an individual, the high priest, the Sanhedrin (as the Talmud understands the passage), and the nasi—a word meaning “president” in modern Hebrew but originally meaning chieftain or leader. Examining the treatment of the last instance, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks derives a powerful meditation on political theory:

In three of the four cases, the law is introduced by the word im, “if”—if such a person commits a sin. In the case of the leader, however, the law is prefaced by the word asher, “when.” It is possible that a high priest, the Supreme Court, or an individual may err. But in the case of a leader, it is probable or even certain. Leaders make mistakes. It is unavoidable, the occupational hazard of their role. Talking about the sin of a Nasi, the Torah uses the word “when,” not “if.”

Why does the Torah consider this type of leadership particularly prone to error? . . . One [reason] is that politics is an arena of conflict. It deals in matters—specifically wealth and power—that are short-term, zero-sum games. . . . The politics of free societies is always conflict-ridden. The only societies where there is no conflict are tyrannical or totalitarian ones in which dissenting voices are suppressed—and Judaism is a standing protest against tyranny. So in a free society, whatever course a politician takes will please some and anger others. From this, there is no escape.

Politics involves difficult judgments. . . . The reason leaders—as opposed to judges and priests—cannot avoid making mistakes is that there is no textbook that infallibly teaches you how to lead. Priests and judges follow laws. For leadership there are no laws because every situation is unique. As Isaiah Berlin put it in his essay, “Political Judgment,” in the realm of political action, there are few laws and what is needed instead is skill in reading a situation.

The Jewish approach to leadership is thus an unusual combination of realism and idealism—realism in its acknowledgment that leaders inevitably make mistakes, idealism in its constant subordination of politics to ethics, power to responsibility, pragmatism to the demand of conscience. What matters is not that leaders never get it wrong—that is inevitable, given the nature of leadership. . . . The most important thing . . . is that a leader is sufficiently honest to admit his mistakes. Hence the significance of the sin offering.

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Jewish political tradition, Jonathan Sacks, Sacrifice

 

Why Is Iran Acquiring Property in Venezuela?

In June Tehran and Caracas concluded a major twenty-year cooperation treaty. One of its many provisions—kept secret until recently—was the transfer of 4,000 square miles of Venezuelan land to Iranian control. Although the territory is ostensibly for agricultural use, Lawrence Franklin suspects the Islamic Republic might have other plans:

Hizballah already runs paramilitary training centers in restricted sections of Venezuela’s Margarita Island, a tourist area northeast of the country’s mainland. The terrorist group has considerable support from some of Venezuela’s prominent Lebanese clans such as the Nasr al-Din family, who reportedly facilitated Iran’s penetration of Margarita Island. . . . The Maduro regime has apparently been so welcoming to Iranian intelligence agents that some of Hizballah’s long-established Latin American network at the tri-border nexus of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay has been overtaken by Hizballah activities on Venezuela’s Margarita Island.

Iran’s alliance with Venezuela most importantly provides Tehran with opportunities to target U.S. interests in Latin America and potentially the southern United States. Iran, along with the Chinese Communist Party, is in the process of strengthening Venezuela’s military against the U.S., for instance by deliveries of military drones, which are also considered a threat by Colombia.

While air and seaborne arms deliveries are high-profile evidence of Iran’s ties with Venezuela, Tehran’s cooperation with Venezuelan intelligence agencies, although less visible, is also intense. The Islamic Republic’s support for Hizballah terrorist operations is pervasive throughout Latin America. Hizballah recruits from Venezuela’s ten-million-strong Lebanese diaspora. Iran and Hizballah cooperate in training of intelligence agents and in developing sources who reside in Venezuela and Colombia, as well as in the tri-border region of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

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Read more at Gatestone

More about: Iran, Latin America, Venezuela