What is the function of spiritual leadership? To inspire, to guide? To have vision for the future? Yes, all of that. But this week’s Torah reading adds a further dimension: to feel a sense of connection with every individual, to pray on their behalf, to seek to connect them with the divine, and to protect them both physically and spiritually.

The Torah describes the sad case of a person who accidentally—but negligently—brought about someone’s death. This is a tragic event, and the Torah text uses the term “murderer” for the one who caused the accident, despite the fact that it was not planned as a crime and was not the result of personal hatred.

This serious action needs atonement, and the Torah instructs that in the Land of Israel six cities of refuge should be established. The accidental murderer has to flee to one of these cities, and remain there for the rest of his life. Only through this can he gain atonement for the tragedy he caused.

The Torah adds an interesting point. If the high priest passes away, the accidental murderer is permitted to leave the city of refuge and return home.1 One explanation of this is that the passing of the righteous atones for the sins of the generation. The fact that the high priest, the spiritual leader of the generation, has left the world attains atonement for many people, including the accidental murderer, and he is then able to return home.2

Rashi gives a different explanation. He says that the high priest should have been praying for the benefit of his generation in a way which would have prevented such negligent accidents from taking place. This means that the fact that the accident occurred indicates a flaw in the spiritual service of the high priest himself. He should have been concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of every person. That concern, expressed through his intense power of prayer, would have prevented the accident.

When the high priest passes away, atonement is achieved for his error in not praying for the weaker members of his generation, and this also affects the accidental murderer. He, too, is now atoned for his blunder and can go home.3

This demonstrates the nature of Jewish leadership. The high priest was an exalted figure, living in the atmosphere of the sacred Temple. Yet he should be concerned for every individual in the Jewish people, including those who are liable to fall into dangerous and harmful behavior. He cannot think that his sanctity protects him. On the contrary, it gives him a tremendous responsibility to be concerned for everyone.

This, of course, applies to each of us. We cannot think that we are separate from those who are more challenged in spiritual or moral terms. The whole Jewish people is one; further, the Jew has to be concerned about the spiritual wellbeing of everyone in society.4

Through this kind of concern on the part of every member of the Jewish people, with leaders on every level who express this ideal, we will be able to bring the world to the next stage of history, the ultimate redemption.