Built into an open democratic system of government is the idea that too much power should not be invested in any one individual. Such a policy leads to dictatorship. Hence the concept of checks and balances, in which individuals in government invested with power are checked and balanced out by other individuals.
Indeed the principal of checks and balances is basic to the American political system. This idea is also found in the wisdom of the Torah. Each individual in Torah leadership has unique tasks and, in the end, limits and checks the power of the other.
For example: the navi (prophet) serves as the bearer of ethical standards; the melech (king) heads the executive branch; the Sanhedrin is the judiciary. And, as our parshah points out, the kohen serves as the ritual model for the am (the people). When a leader assumes more than one of these roles it leads to devastation. This type of devastation actually occurred in the time of the Maccabees who became not only the executive heads of the people but also the ritual leadership.
The Torah takes the concept of checks and balances a step further. Built into the respective roles of Jewish leadership is the recognition that each of these powerful and important leaders is subservient to a higher power, to God. In the end, God is the ultimate check and balance.
The navi never speaks without the imprimatur of God. Unlike the Christian model where a man-god speaks in the first person, our navi speaks with the refrain, “Thus says the Lord.”
Similarly, the melech must carry a Torah with him at all times. He does this so that he constantly understands that he does not dictate the law; rather, the Torah dictates the law to him. Even the judiciary has its limits, for the highest court can only offer the law based on the foundations and principles set forth at Sinai by the Almighty.
It is not only the role definitions that convey limitation of power. Even the clothes worn remind the leaders of this message. Around the head of the priest is the tzitz (a plate of pure gold), upon which the words “Holy to the Lord” are stated (Exodus 28:36). In contrast to the ancient priests who so often abused their power, our kohen is reminded constantly that whatever his power, it emerges from the Almighty.
In this sense the priest in the Tabernacle is a fixing of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There, in the beauty of Eden, they disobey God’s words. Here, in the mishkan, a kind of Garden of Eden within the larger world, the kohen is mandated to follow the word of God. It is not a coincidence that in Eden God made clothes for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). In the fixing story the priest also wears clothes (Exodus 28:4). Here, however, the priest, unlike Adam and Eve, follows the word of God.
In contemporary times, when politicians feel so entitled they often act as if they are superhuman, the roles and messages presented in the Torah teach us that in the end, each person, no matter her or his stature, is human and fallible. Only God is infallible and stands alone as the ultimate check and balance.
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
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