A Check on Power

When the House of Representatives voted this week to impeach the president, my kids asked me what that means, and I had a hard time explaining it. What exactly is impeachment? It’s not the removal of a government official, since the Senate decides that. It’s not really an accusation of wrongdoing, since anyone can accuse someone of misconduct. The best analogy we have is to an indictment, a formal procedure to charge someone with a crime, but of course impeachment is not a legal proceeding.

The consequences of the impeachment process are immense, but don’t involve fines, prison time or monetary settlements. Instead, the ultimate result after a Senate “trial” is either to remain or be removed from office. One of the reasons it is hard for us to grapple with impeachment is that for most of us, the decision to keep or fire someone is made by management or the HR department.

Impeachment is so consequential because the jobs involved are either those elected by the people, or appointed by their representatives. It’s important that government officials (not just presidents but cabinet secretaries and judges as well) are allowed the freedom to do their jobs because they have been chosen by the people, but they must also be held accountable even between elections.

Sometimes, it’s helpful to look at the translation of a word to understand its meaning. So what is the Hebrew word for impeachment? It turns out the modern term, hadacha, comes from the Bible where it is used to mean thrust aside, or cast out. One example is from Deuteronomy’s explanation of the false prophet who “causes you to stray” from loyalty to God. Modern Hebrew picks up on the idea of pushing one out and so hadacha comes to mean dismissal.

Impeachment, of course, is more than just firing someone. It is an important check on those in power, and there is a connection to the holiday of Hanukkah which begins this Sunday. Beyond the story of the miracle of the oil found in the Temple that lasted for eight days, the holiday celebrates the victory of the Maccabees and the creation of an independent Jewish nation that lasted for a hundred years.

This short-lived Hasmonean state, the last independent Jewish government until the creation of the State of Israel, collapsed for a number of reasons. One problem they faced was the collapse of the separation of powers and the concentration of authority in the hands of the few. Originally, the Hasmoneans were priests who controlled the Temple, but also had administrative functions. Later they claimed the kingship, which should only have gone to descendants of the house of David.

Some scholars argue that nations succeed when they have a strong central government combined with inclusive political and economic institutions. This arrangement allows for decisive action, but at the same time prevents corruption and fosters participation and innovation. Power is good because it gets things done, as long as the people in charge are accountable.

Impeachment is a necessary tool for democracy, a check on the people we entrust with great authority. The Jews of the first century BCE found their hard fought independence decline as their Hasmonean rulers accumulated more and more power. Let us appreciate the checks and balances that are an essential part of our system, and help our nation continue to thrive.

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