In connection with her 1989 indictment for tax evasion, hotelier Leona Helmsley was reported to have commented, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
It certainly seems that the attitude is more widespread than ever. Too many people who hold positions of leadership and trust believe they are exempt from the rules that apply to “the little people.”
• Corporate executives, charged with the duty to build value for shareholders and contribute to the good of society, line their own pockets at the expense of shareholders and increase their bonuses by laying off long-term employees and replacing them with part-timers.
• Members of the clergy break not only their vows (whether of celibacy or marriage), but also the most basic moral laws they have preached, and their superiors protect them to avoid public scandal.
• Elected officials, those who make and enforce our laws, are indicted for financial malfeasance and censured for ethics violations and then brazenly seek reelection.
How can we know whom to trust when we have seen so many examples of people we are supposed to look up to flouting the rules — because, after all, rules apply only to “the little people.”
The Torah reading for Yom Kippur presents a very different standard. We read about the biblical version of Yom Kippur. As described in the Torah, Yom Kippur is primarily a purification ritual for the sanctuary and the altar and included within it the ceremony of the scapegoat intended to cleanse the people of sin.
On this one occasion each year, the kohen gadol (high priest) would enter the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It was an awesome responsibility, for if the high priest did not perform his role properly, he would die. According to legend, while the Holy Temple stood, before the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, as a precaution, a rope would be tied around his waist that might be needed to pull him out, for no one else would be permitted to enter and retrieve his body if he were to die.
As a result, the high priest’s preparation for this ritual involved a number of specific steps performed in a prescribed order. First he was to present his own offering and make his own confession of sins to make atonement for himself and for his household. It was only after this that he would perform the scapegoat ritual for asking atonement for the entire Jewish people.
In other words, the kohen gadol had to put his own house in order and confess his own sins before he could seek atonement for others. He was exempt from no rule that applied to ordinary Israelites. And if he forgot this — if he ever began to think he was above the law — he might pay with his life.
As the Torah tells us (Vayikra 24:22), mishpat ehad yehye lechem — A single standard will apply to all of you.