IS IT GOOD TO BE THE KING?
Rabbi David Walk
This week's Torah reading presents the Jewish vision of Political Science. And, at first blush, it's a little embarrassing. The Torah proudly announces that upon entry into the
First of all allow me to quote from Rabbi Soloveitchik who stated that the Torah is an evolutionary document, not a revolutionary manifesto. In a number of cases the Torah doesn't obliterate existing institutions; it just gives a more humane face to them. The most famous examples are slavery and polygamy. In both instances, the offending institution is eventually legislated out of existence, but in the interim we continue the practice but with severe limitations and restrictions. In reality the Torah is quite modern in its approach to rulers as it invents constitutional monarchy. A king is only appointed if the people, in whom the true power resides, have clamored for one. There are clear limits to a monarch's powers, such as prohibiting unlimited wives and horses (not to, God forbid, compare the two). Plus the king must have a Torah scroll with him at all times. This is a clear indication that he rules under the strict laws of the Torah. He is actually commanded to read the book of Deuteronomy publicly after every shmitta cycle.
In Judaism the Law of God is supreme, not the fiat of any flesh and blood ruler. This is in clear contrast to the legal system, which does have unfettered power. First of all the appointment of judges and court officers is not conditional to any circumstance. Every Jewish community must have a judicial infrastructure, as the verse stipulates that every city gate has shoftim v'shotrim. Even more emphatic is the clear supremacy of the courts, judges and, by extension, rabbis to interpret the law. The Torah states: And you shall do according to the word they tell you, from the place the Lord will choose, and you shall observe to do according to all they instruct you. According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left (Deuteronomy 17:10-11). Even though there are arguments about how far these powers extend, it's clear that the rabbinic assemblies (later called Sanhedrin) have tremendous and unconditional power. This power includes instituting new mitzvoth, which they did seven times. These are: To recite a blessing before eating, To ritually wash the hands before eating, To prepare lights in advance of Shabbat, To construct an Eruv to permit carrying to and within public areas on Shabbat, To recite the Hallel psalms on specific holy days, To light the Hanukkah lights, and To read the Scroll of Esther on Purim.
This ambivalence towards having a king is, of course, reflected in the objections of the prophet Samuel to appointing a king (I Samuel chapter 8). Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) points out that this lack of clarity is reflected in the text of the Torah itself. The mitzvah is expressed as place upon yourselves a king (17:15). The Hebrew for place is sam tasim, Rabbeinu Bechaye asks why doesn't the verse say appoint or establish? He conjectures that this language allows a pun. The Hebrew letters sin and samech often are exchanged one for the other, and therefore the word could be sam, which means elixir. However this term for medicinal concoction can be sam hachayim, life giving medicine or sam hamavet, poison. Likewise, the appointment of a king can be the best possible situation for the Jewish nation or it can be an impending disaster. And we have had both in our long history.
The interesting detail in our verse is that the root sam, for setting up a king appears three times. So, it must be that we're being taught three concepts about establishing a king. It could mean that historically we will begin our monarchy on three occasions, first with Saul, then with David and eventually with the Moshiach. Or it could mean that we appoint three different kings. We obviously perform the literal mitzvah of anointing a monarch for our country. The second royal appointment is clear to us all as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah. Every year we coronate God as our king, and proclaim God's rule throughout all Creation. We also declare 'God will rule forevermore' in our daily prayers as well. Finally, there is a more subtle establishment of a sovereign, and that is elevating our intellect, our conscience and our soul over our basic realm, namely ourselves. The wording in the verse is deliberately in the singular. Every one of us must decide what rules our bodies, our decisions and our lives. That entity is our king, and we do not want to abrogate this reign to our emotions or to our stomach. Each one of us must make sure that our spiritual side governs our physical body.
So, appointing a sovereign is serious business whether it is for our self, our land or our universe. It is essential that power is bequeathed to the proper address. Giving control over to the wrong being has been disastrous many times in the history of mankind on both the micro and macro levels. Therefore, our verse is teaching us that the crown is in the hands of every individual. Bestow it very carefully.
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