Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Prince and the Elder

Three days ago, we read the Torah portion of Bo. (Don't worry, we can still talk about it until sunset today.) Throughout Chapter 12, the central part of Bo, we find some very distinguished terms: "the entire Israelite congregation... per paternal house" (3), "assembly" (6), "by your families" (21) and "by their hosts" (51).
All of these words are found in the first chapter of the Book of Numbers: "Raise the head of the entire Israelite congregation by their families, by their paternal houses" (2); "And they assembled the entire congregation" (18); "And the Israelites will camp, each one by his camp and each one by his banner, to their hosts" (52). There we find that Moses and Aaron are assisted by the tribal princes, but the fact that the Torah uses these genealogical terms in the preparations for leaving Egypt tells us that the princes are already fulfilling this function. They are not mentioned explicitly until the next portion, Beshallach, in the passage of the manna (16:22), but when the Israelites are organized by family, paternal house and host, it is clear that these tribal leaders are exercising their authority. 

What happened to the elders? As we saw previously, they are not impressed by Moses' sign in Exodus 4, and they in fact challenge him and Aaron in Exodus 5. In the next chapter, Moses finds that he has lost the people as well. God is about to tell him what to do, but the Torah interrupts the flow of the story to list the genealogy of Moses and Aaron (vv. 14-28). Then God sends Moses to Pharaoh once again, but with an important addition: "Bring out the Israelites from the land of Egypt by their hosts" (6:26); "I will take my hosts, my people, the Israelites, out of the land of Egypt with great acts of justice" (7:4). Perhaps Moses has lost the elders, but there are also princes, and as the Torah informs us, the first among their ranks, Judah's Nahshon son of Amminadab, is Aaron's brother-in-law! So they have a backup plan.

What separates the princes from the elders? The princes symbolize top-down patrician leadership, and their paradigm is the monarchy. The elders symbolize bottom-up meritocratic leadership, and their paradigm is the Sanhedrin, Israel's ancient supreme court and parliament. At the height of the excitement of the Exodus, we know that there is a rift among the leaders and the original plan has been set aside, so it's not exactly surprising that later on, there are crises and complaints. If Moses and the elders had been able to work together, who knows what would have happened to the generation of the desert!

Today are the elections for the Nineteenth Knesset; this is the time to think about proper leadership, superior leadership, leadership which comes from the people, based on ability and talent, not on nepotism and connections. There is a place for princes (or "presidents", in modern Hebrew), but it is the elders who can represent the people and pass laws to benefit them. Happy Election Day!

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