Parashah Ponderings

Set a king over yourself.

Parashat Shoftim / פרשת שופטים
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)

Any child who has ever attended Hebrew school will tell you that King David is a hero. He slew Goliath. He wrote beautiful poetry. From David’s lineage will eventually come the messiah. So great a hero is David that we sing ecstatically about him: many Jews learn the song “David Melekh Yisrael – David King of Israel” early in their lives and remember the hand motions that accompany the song well into their upper years. Given what we learn about David and how much we celebrate him, one would think that his anointing was the greatest thing that ever happened to Israel.

Our reverence for King David and, to some extent, for King Solomon and other kings of Israel notwithstanding, according to the Torah God is actually quite ambivalent about Israel having a king at all. In I Samuel 8, the elders of Israel press the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over Israel, which displeases Samuel and causes him to pray to God. God responds, “Listen to what the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king, as they’ve done time and again since I brought them out of Egypt. Listen to them, but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” By appointing a king, Israel was rejecting God’s sovereignty and taking its life as a nation into its own hands. God acquiesces to the people’s demand for a king reluctantly, to say the least.

Our tradition’s ambivalence over the inauguration of an earthly king over Israel serves as a backdrop to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which we find in this week’s reading. Because the Torah portrays God as not so keen on the idea of competing with an earthly king for Israel’s allegiance, God lays out four criteria by which Israel must determine who will be king. Paradoxically, while God guides the people in choosing whom to “set over them,” the king they choose will ultimately be “one chosen by the Lord your God” (17:15). If Israel heeds God’s directive in choosing a king, God will ultimately approve and things will go well with Israel. On the other hand, if Israel spurns God’s directive and chooses a king who doesn’t fit the criteria, God will let Israel know that this king was not one that God chose, and as a result, things won’t go so well for Israel.

What are the four criteria? First, the king cannot be a foreigner. A foreign king might not serve in the best interests of Israel and might even ensnare Israel into worshipping foreign gods. Second, the king must not have too many horses. A king obsessed with owning lots of horses might be driven to sell his own people to acquire more and more horses, thus returning Israelites to servitude in Egypt, which happened to be a great exporter of horses in the ancient near east. Third, the king must not have too many wives, lest his personal, familial concerns divert his attention from matters of governance. Fourth, he must not be a person of excessive wealth. Too much wealth might be corrupting. These criteria make perfect sense. Indeed, together they suggest something about the character of king that God would want to reign over Israel, namely loyal, humble, honest and clear-thinking.

Guiding Israel’s choice of a king, however, is insufficient to allay God’s concern over how the king will reign once on the throne. The king might measure up to each of the four criteria and still fail to govern Israel as God would like. Thus, God commands that once the king is seated on his throne, “he shall write a copy of the Torah for himself” to keep by his side, “to read so that he may learn to fear God, to observe faithfully every word of God’s Teaching” (17:18-19). This Torah was likely the book of Deuteronomy, “a repetition of the laws and history known from the earlier books of the Torah” and not the entire scroll of Torah that we read from today (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, New York, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001, p. 1092).

We might be impressed that the king himself actually writes a book of Torah, which, to be sure, is a matter of debate. But what is truly impressive, to my mind, is the idea that the king studies and is guided by God’s teachings and governs not merely by whim or expediency. The king is expected to be learned of Torah and faithful to the God of Israel and the values that God represents. What a concept!

Now, this isn’t the place to go over the history of Israel’s kingship. I invite you to read the Books of Kings for an introduction. Suffice it to say that some kings knew their Torah and were men of faith and some did not and were not. Some kings tolerated idol worship, and other kings cracked down on it. God approved of the latter while bringing the former to terrible ends.

In the United States, prospective nominees for president have hit the streets and are trying to convince us why they should be president. I wonder what it would be like to hold them to the criteria of character implicit in this week’s Torah reading. Can we find two candidates for president who are loyal, humble, honest and clear-thinking? I continue to hold out hope.

Moreover, I wonder what will become of the winner once he or she takes office. What book of “Torah” will that person read and study? The Constitution? The Bible? Which Bible? The newspapers? Which newspapers? What set of values will guide our president, if any? We cannot know these things for sure. Indeed, what we learn from this week’s Torah portion is that even when we we’ve elected the one person in whom we have the most trust, we have no assurance that the person will govern as we had hoped he or she would. Maybe we should expect our nation’s leader to do as the Torah literally suggests: sit down, write out a copy of “Torah,” and keep it by his or her side every day while under oath.


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