While our Torah portion, Shofetim – Judges – is indeed about judges, and their responsibilities for maintaining judicial integrity in Ancient Israel, I’d like to focus for a moment on another type of leader in Ancient Israel mentioned in this portion. That is the king. We know that beginning around 1,000 B.C.E., kings did exist in Israel, beginning with King Saul, and moving subsequently to King David, King Solomon, and beyond. We read about the kings in the early Prophetic books of the Tanakh, Kings and Samuel particularly. But with the exception of this brief mention here in Deuteronomy Chapter 17, there is not a single word about an Israelite king anywhere in the Torah. There are leaders in the narrative, of course: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Miriam, and groups of people as well: judges, lawgivers, tribal heads, and the like. But no king. (No, no queen either.) Except here.
If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal 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 Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17.14-20)
A few things to note about this. First, the appointment of a king is not obligatory, but a matter of choice on the part of the Israelites. But if they were to go ahead and make this choice, then there were certain requirements that both they and the king had to fulfill.
1. They would have to choose a king from among the Israelite people. A foreign-born person was ineligible. (We in the United States have a similar Constitutional restriction on the Presidency.)
2. The king may not own many horses. How many is too many? We don’t exactly know. But the point is that many horses would lead to military might. This was something that a king should avoid, at least according to this narrative.
3. The king should not have too many wives. How many is too many? Later generations of Rabbis interpreted this to mean eighteen. Any more than eighteen wives would be too many wives for a king of Israel. What is particularly interesting about this is the consequences of the king’s reach. In the ancient world, international relationships were often effected through marriages. If the king was restricted in the number of marriages, he was also restricted in the number of potential international alliances that he could form. So there seems to be an attempt here to “keep it in the family” to a great extent.
4. The king should not amass too much silver and gold. One might venture a guess that this was to keep the king from becoming corrupt by an overabundance of wealth.
5. Perhaps the most remarkable? The king was obligated to have a copy of the Teaching of Moses (the Torah) written personally for him by the priests, and he was to study it throughout his life. So what was the king’s primary responsibility? To study Torah!
What should pop out at us immediately, given these restrictions, is the case of King Solomon. Not too much wealth? Not too many wives? Not too many horses? Uh-oh, looks pretty bad for Solomon! But as we remember, Solomon’s indulgences in all these areas ultimately led not only to his own downfall, but to the breakup of his kingdom, and the division of the Jewish people into two separate kingdoms within the Land of Israel, one in the north, and one in the south. Maybe the Deuteronomic author knew what he was talking about!
My teacher at The Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Micah Goodman, characterizes the restrictions here as a “paradox of power.” All these restrictions, Dr. Goodman deduces, were designed to prevent the kings of Israel from becoming too powerful. Because, as Goodman says, “only giving up your power enables you to stay in power. Only by giving up control can you remain in control.”
I will leave any suggestion of parallels to our current political leaders, and those who aspire at this particular moment, to you for just now. Nevertheless, for every one of us, it would seem that Dr. Goodman’s observation is important and relevant. We all walk a fine line, one that is often difficult to discern, between taking the reins of control, and building consensus; and at times, doing both at once. And for sure, the admonition of Deuteronomy that has steadied us as individuals and as a people throughout our history, and continues to this day, is our embrace and study of Torah. Our tradition has always centered us and helped us to understand the ethical framework within which we can build our lives in the best way possible. Ki hem chayeinu, v’orech yameinu, for they (the Torah’s teachings) are our life and the length of our days. We recite this verse in our evening prayers. May we remember it always.