Moral Authority Comes Through the People’s Consent


Rabbi Marc Israel

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36.

Each of the last six Torah portions have been leading to this moment. The instructions for the mishkan (tabernacle) and its accoutrements were received and everything was built.

The elaborate garment for the kohen gadol (high priest) was designed and completed. The directions for the bringing forth the various korbanot (sacrifices) have been enumerated.

Finally, Moshe is about to anoint Aaron and his sons and then dedicate the mishkan. At that moment, God instructs Moshe to “assemble kol ha-eidah (the entire community) at the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Leviticus 8:3).

Why? At the beginning of parshat Vayakhel, the same instruction was given, but in that case it was necessary because everyone would contribute to the building of the mishkan. But that would not be the case here. So what is the purpose of this gathering?

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (HaNetziv), in his commentary HaEmek HaDavar, notes that every other time God instructs Moshe to gather the people, it is because they have a specific role to play. So, he asks rhetorically, “what is the reason for this gathering?” He then provides two possibilities: 1) For the people to become accustomed to seeing the kohanim in their new role and 2) To ensure that a few minor changes that had been made in the mishkan from what had previously been instructed would be seen as legitimate.

The people gathered, therefore, to witness and to legitimize the role of these new leaders. But HaNetziv also says that they were witnesses to the beginning of the tradition of Oral Torah. Their presence helps empower the role of Moshe and the leaders in future generations to teach and interpret the Torah, sometimes in ways that appear to differ from the Written Torah. Therefore, he teaches, this moment is almost as important as the revelation at Sinai, as it will give legitimacy to the entire rabbinic enterprise of interpretation.

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (Malbim) offers a different interpretation. He taught that the verse doesn’t indicate that the whole community gathered, but that kol ha-eidah is only the group of 70 elders who Moshe had appointed. He explains that God ordered them to gather to show future generations that the kohein gadol could only be appointed with the consent of the Sanhedrin, the group of 71 elders who formed the court of final decision during the early rabbinic period.

These two commentaries share a common message: the important role that the public plays in legitimizing communal leaders. God didn’t consult with the people when Moshe was chosen as leader and the people didn’t affirm him. However, now that the institutions of leadership are being established for future generations, public affirmation of the leaders is critical. It wasn’t a question of legalities — Aharon and his sons weren’t elected and God did not need the people to gather to decide who the leader was. Rather, they suggest, the Torah specifies their necessity to provide a type of moral legitimacy that is just as important.

Over the past three months, we have seen weekly and sometimes daily large-scale demonstrations in Israel and by Israelis and Jews in cities throughout the world, including here in Washington. These are not anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli demonstrations. They are lovers of Zion who seek to remind the government of this lesson: everyone agrees that it has the legal authority to pass its legislative agenda. But the demonstrators are reminding the government that its moral authority comes only through the consent of the people.

Our systems of government change throughout the generations. The importance of the consent of the people does not.

Rabbi Marc Israel is the rabbi at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.

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