Parashat VaYikra is filled with the descriptions of many Korbanot. The Torah details a wide variety of Korbanot, ranging anywhere from thanking Hashem with a Korban Todah to pleading for forgiveness with a Korban Chatat. Although the Korban Chatat seems to have a concrete purpose, there is also an abstract idea that can be associated with it.
The Chatat was brought to atone for unintentional sins. Additionally, there is a specific category of the Chatat that comes into effect only when a Nasi, a leader of Bnei Yisrael, accidentally sins. The Torah, in its explanation for this Korban, uses a peculiar Lashon: “Asher Nasi Yecheta VeAsah Achat MiKol Mitzvot Hashem Elokav Asher Lo TeiAsenah Bishgagah VeAsheim,” “When a ruler commits a sin from amongst all the commandments of Hashem that may not be done—unintentionally—and becomes guilty” (VaYikra 4:22). Interestingly, the Torah chooses not to use the word, “if” a Nasi shall sin, but “when.” Rav Goldin, in his Unlocking the Torah Text, explains that the Torah does not say “if” because it does not want to give the Nasi a chance to not be accused of sinning at some point. Instead, by saying “when,” the Torah is actually making a statement about every Nasi—they will, unconditionally, commit a sin. Rashi (VaYikra 4:22 s.v. Asher Nasi Yecheta) adds that when the Pasuk states “Asher Nasi Yecheta,” “When the Nasi sins,” it really means “Ashrei Nasi Yecheta,” “it is fortunate when the Nasi sins.” Rashi is highlighting that this Pasuk is teaching us that it is a good thing for the Nasi to bring the Korban, as it shows that he admits to his wrongdoings and is willing to repent. The Nasi, an individual in a position of power, has a responsibility to set an example for his people. The Torah isn’t necessarily concerned with the sin of the Nasi, rather, it is trying to lay down ground rules for the requirement for the Nasi to be a positive role model for the Bnei Yisrael. Ultimately, someone from the Bnei Yisrael will sin. However, with the proper guidance from the Nasi, he will be inspired to repent. This is the point of Rashi teaching the Pasuk as, “Ashrei Nasi Yecheta,” it is good when the Nasi has an opportunity to set a positive example for his people. Others, like the Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni disagree with Rashi’s Midrashic approach and answer on more of a Peshat level. They formulate a way to turn “when” into “if.”
Some, like the Seforno (VaYikra 4:22 s.v. Nasi Asher Yecheta), try to take an in-between stance. The Torah is teaching about how powerful people always become overtaken by the power and control vested in them. Really, the word “when” is a warning for anyone in a position of power. The Torah knows he will definitely sin, because he will inevitably become obsessed with his control over others.
By combining these two answers, we can learn a vital lesson. We look at ourselves each day and we think that it would be impossible to commit any Aveirah that day. But as the day goes on, we can forget to recite Berachot on our food, or we might say a bit of Lashon Harah. These unintentional sins are an “if” that become a “when” because of how common place they have become. No one is perfect and the Torah says it straight out—even the Nasi can’t stop himself from doing any sin. However, just like the Nasi, we have to recognize our wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness, and only then will Hashem have mercy. He will forgive all that we “might” or “have” done if we are honest and apologize with full sincerity.