Power Sharing

The impacts of grassroots organizations and the division of power.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

In a just nation, power is distributed among all people. To achieve this ideal, leaders need the humility to empower their own citizens, and grassroots communities need the audacity to actively shape society. In Parashat B'ha'alotkha, we see that Moses understands this need for power-sharing.

Near the end of the parashah, Miriam and Aaron pose an extremely important question: “Has God spoken only through Moses? Has God not also spoken through us?” (Numbers12:2) Rashi writes that “us” here refers to Miriam and Aaron. But, in the context of this parashah, it seems more likely that “us” refers to all of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.

Immediately after Miriam and Aaron utter this protest, the Torah states, “And the man Moses was very humble, more so than any human on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). This juxtaposition of Miriam and Aaron’s question with a statement about Moses’ humility reflects an optimum political dynamic. Miriam and Aaron essentially assert that no leader has a monopoly on truth and power, and the text suggests that Moses is humble enough to appreciate this fact.

Humility not only enables Moses to understand his role as a leader, it inspires him to empower the Israelites. Earlier in our parashah, God extends Moses’ prophetic abilities to 70 elders (11:16-17, 11:24-30). One might expect Moses to flex his power at this politically vulnerable moment when others suddenly acquire his spiritual capacities (11:17).

Joshua urges him to take charge of the situation: “Moses, my lord, restrict them!” he cries (11:28). But Moses does not feel threatened by an empowered populace. Instead, he responds, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of God were prophets!” (11:29)

In contrast to Moses, who is eager to share his power with the people, there are many political figures in the world today whose thirst for power drowns out the voices of their own citizens. In Burma, for example, oppressive military regimes have held control since 1962. In democratic elections in 1990, the Burmese people officially ousted the junta by voting overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the military refused to give up power: it put Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and has held her there for most of the last 19 years. For generations, the military junta has also violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations of Burmese students, Buddhist monks and nuns, and other civilians. The regime continues to inflict severe human rights abuses against the country’s ethnic minorities, especially in the conflict areas of eastern Burma.

Taking Responsibility

Citizens of democratic nations must challenge political systems that marginalize and persecute their own people. Yet many of us today inadvertently support the consolidation of power in the hands of a few leaders. The humility of Moses and the question of Miriam and Aaron grow dim in our consciousness.

We glorify the actions of presidents, prime-ministers, and armies, even though the vast majority of national life always occurs at the grassroots level. The media reinforces this fallacy by disproportionately publicizing the actions of government leaders over the actions of community leaders. But effective NGOs and community-based organizations around the world deserve our attention and support. They are strongholds and mouthpieces for the power of the people.

In places like Burma, where it appears that the government holds all of the power, grassroots NGOs are effecting tremendous change. One example is Palaung Women's Organization (PWO), which empowers women and communities of the Palaung ethnic minority. In one PWO-run project, young women participate in a six-month course in democracy, human rights, and women’s rights in which they receive training in English, computer use, and group-facilitation skills.

Learning about and supporting grassroots organizations like PWO is essential for anyone who genuinely cares about global issues. It is a critical way of ensuring that power is shared between a people and its government.

Parashat B'ha'alotkha begins with a description of the menorah, an image that can serve as a model for the just distribution of power in a society. The structure of the menorah eloquently symbolizes the ideal political structure of a nation. It is “gold from base to petal” (Numbers 8:4) and made from one block of material (Sh'mot 25:31). God instructs, “The seven lamps shall illuminate the face of the menorah,” not only the high branches (Numbers 8:2).

While all parts of the menorah are fundamentally one, so are all parts of the nation. Just as the lamps should not overshadow the menorah’s body, leaders should not overshadow the masses. Like the menorah, let governments and citizens around the world kindle a balanced light of power and humility.

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Sam Shonkoff

Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute and The Conservative Yeshiva.