Watching over

Watching over

Pinchas | Numbers 25:10-30:1

Complex things require two kinds of people: experts to do them and ordinary people to watch over what the experts do. 

“Watch over” the sacrifices, this week’s parsha says — not just the expert priests and Levites who do them, but also ordinary Israelites who must “stand over them” while they make the sacrifices. “From this,” Rashi summarizes, “we learn to establish ma’amadot.”

The word — (singular, ma’amad) from the root “amad,” “to stand” — refers to representative groups of Israelites from all over the country who took turns traveling to Jerusalem to “stand over” the sacrifices that the priests and Levites performed. As the Talmud describes, Israel was divided into districts, and the sacrificial calendar was allocated among the districts. When a district’s turn arrived, it sent a delegation of priests and Levites to the Temple to make the offerings. A ma’amad (a representative group of laypeople, regular “Israelites”) also accompanied them as observers. 

What exactly did the Israelites add to the occasion just by watching? Precisely that: They watched over what was, after all, activity on their behalf

A far cry from fully representative democracy, but the rabbis got the principle right: what represents the people requires oversight by the people. Experts perform the task, but the people retain ownership and responsibility for it.

But only a fraction of the population had the time and money to travel to Jerusalem, so another ma’amad was convened back home at precisely the time the sacrifices were occurring in the Temple. Tradition associates that gathering with reciting the Amida — the prayer the rabbis believed to be a substitute for the sacrifices. As sacrifice required an expert priest, so the Amida required an expert prayer leader — someone known as a sh’liach tzibur (“representative of the people”). He was to be removed if he failed in the task, or even if he had a characterological flaw that made him unfit to represent the people before God.

Some 16 centuries later, European philosophers developed “social contract theory” to justify conditions under which even kings might be removed if they did not properly represent the people. Philosopher John Locke affirmed our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property — Thomas Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness,” and the rest is history. 

The idea, however, goes back to the rabbis’ reading of this portion. Leadership of the body politic requires experts, but even experts are answerable for their expertise and character. Failing either, we, the people, remove them. 

We might remember that lesson as we prepare for next year’s primaries. We should demand those qualities of anyone who seeks to represent us — expertise and character. 

The most important lesson, however, is that we, the people, are responsible for everything our leaders do. If our people suffer poverty (as they do) or the rampant and racist slaughter of innocents (think “Charleston”); if our prisons are inhumane (as they are) or if we practice, or have practiced, torture (as we have and probably still do); then we, the people, are responsible for not watching over the policies enacted or permitted in our name. 

From a Jewish perspective, what we do as a body politic represents us to God. And God’s message this week is that you cannot source out moral responsibility. 

We are responsible for watching over policies enacted or permitted in our name.

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