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.
The photo to the right was taken on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Though the signs look blank from the camera angle, they actually contain the signatures of over a million Americans. The women carrying them are Suffragettes. On August 19, 1920, 95 years ago, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. While the Women’s Suffrage Movement was officially initiated in 1848, the battle for women’s voting rights had been waged for over a century in this country before that August day in 1920.
During these weeks in the Book of Deuteronomy we see the effort to construct a society within Ancient Israel that was concerned with fair treatment of the people within that society, based on the rule of law. Obviously many of the specifics of that time and place would be considered outmoded and inappropriate in our own time and place. The powerlessness of women is one of the most glaring of these. Nevertheless, American women have had to fight for virtually every civil right, including the right to vote.We have secured property ownership rights. But we’re still working on equal pay for equal work. We’re still working on employment non-discrimination, and parity in elected office and CEO positions. We’re still working on harassment prevention. We’re still working on anti-trafficking laws. We’re still working on paid pregnancy and maternity leave as a universal right. We’re still working on unimpeded access to health care and family planning. Despite decades of demonstrating, petitioning, and sustained pressure, there is still no Equal Rights Amendment within our Constitution. 95 years – fully an entire century – after being guaranteed the right to vote for the people who will decide our fate in state houses and the halls of Congress, and we are still fighting for basic civil rights. The battle over funding of Planned Parenthood continues to escalate, particularly as presidential politics continue to heat up. But women’s health care and family planning are not bargaining chips in presidential politics. They are the most fundamental rights that every woman ought to expect to take for granted.
While American women do indeed live in far better circumstances than many others in the world, there are still glaring insufficiencies in our legal system regarding women’s rights and protections. Within various non-white communities, the disparities are more glaring still. As the election season moves into high gear, women’s equality should be one of the top priorities in anyone’s platform. Anything less is unacceptable.
We are no strangers to political scandals in our country, particularly those involving the bribery of public officials. Anyone who makes decisions based upon some promise of personal gain, either privately or professionally, compromises the public trust. Our sidra reminds us that bribery is one of the most serious offenses a public official could commit, particularly those who are involved in the judicial system. Every person who comes before the court, either in a criminal or civil proceeding, is supposed to receive equal treatment by the magistrate, regardless of his/her financial or social status. The image of blind justice grows out of the insistence upon equal treatment under the law for all individuals. This notion should be applied not only to judges and public officials, but to anyone entrusted with the responsibility of an organization or community of any kind. The word is שחד- shochad – bribery. The Talmud offers an etymology of the word as a combination of two words: שהוא חד – shehu chad – that it is one. This means that if we take a bribe, we are psychologically linked with the person who gave it to us. The same way we would defend ourselves, so too would we always try to defend the person with whom we became one by taking his bribe.
Underlying this injunction grows out of the fundamental theology of our Torah: we all are created in the divine image, and thus equally entitled to fair and equal treatment; under the law, and in the organizations and communities to which we belong. The rich should not be given any opportunity to use their wealth to wield influence in the public sphere, particularly in legal proceedings.
You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.