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Torah Commentary
Shof'tim (September 10, 2016)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

Jews historically have had an uneasy
relationship with the idea of monarchy.

Our experience has taught us that we have good reason to distrust tyranny in any form. For every Alexander or Darius who championed our liberty, there was a Pharaoh, Ferdinand or Antiochus who enslaved, exiled or subjugated us. Even when we ruled ourselves, as under Herod the Great, our sovereigns all too often used their power for personal gain or to advance their political interests.

The Bible frequently reminds us that, unlike other nations, we alone have an omniscient and all-powerful God as our supreme leader. We, therefore, are exhorted to withhold unconditional authority from earthly leaders and have faith only in Divine rule. Time and again, we are reminded that power corrupts even the most just, courageous and wise, as it did to Samuel, David and Solomon, respectively. Only God can be trusted to be eternally righteous and ceaselessly compassionate.

The book of Deuteronomy provides evidence that we nevertheless always have longed for strong and decisive human leadership. Despite our considerable and understandable misgivings with earthly authority, we are unable to trust only in a “higher authority.” Even with a perfect God as our King of Kings, we desire to be “like all the nations around us,” with an imperfect human leader.

Because it is inevitable that we will seek out mortal rulers, this week’s Torah portion teaches us how we may ensure that human authority remains accountable to those it governs.

After the coronation, once the reign has been established firmly, the monarch is exhorted to write a copy of the Law, the Torah. This act guarantees that our leaders will be familiar with the rules that govern our nation in their entirety, making it impossible for them to deny accountability for their actions. The king then must study the Torah on a daily basis, a continual reminder that its laws are as applicable to him as to any other member of the Jewish people, whether an aristocrat or an immigrant, a scholar, an orphan or a widow.

Requiring the king be a “lifelong learner” of Torah — and a copy written in his own hand, no less — assures us that our leader not only will obey the law and rule justly but also will recognize the humility demanded of the position. We all are not only bound equally by the laws of the Torah, whether king or commoner, but we also are equal in the eyes of God. Engaging in daily study of our nation’s masterwork, to which we all are accountable, ensures that the king “not begin to feel superior to his brethren.” All of the people of Israel, along with the foreigners dwelling among us, are entitled equally to its protections.

Perhaps most important, the Law belongs not to the king alone but all the children of Israel and to all who follow its teachings. Ours is not a “mystery religion,” in which only the privileged few may study the secret wisdom of our ancestors and learn the rules we must follow. Any one of us is entitled to learn the words of the Torah — and to hold even a monarch accountable to them.

In the nations that surrounded our ancestors, to be a king was to be an infallible god. Pharaoh did not need to account for or to explain his actions to anyone. Caesar could act without concern that there would be consequences for behavior, no matter how cruel, or selfish or bizarre. For the Jews, however, to be king neither set one above the law nor one’s fellows. To this day, to be entrusted with our leadership is perhaps the greatest honor that a human can achieve, but our leaders are required, in all their actions, to act as righteously and compassionately as we would expect of any of our peers, or of ourselves.

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