ABUSE OF POWER
Rabbi David Walk
There is a political fight going on in Texas. So, what else is new? The Republicans claim that the Democrats are abusing power by criminally charging the Governor with (You guessed it!): Abuse of Power. They are both probably right. The one thing that we can confidently say about power is that eventually it will be abused. Much of our Biblical book of Kings is about abuse of power. From the best kings, like King David, to the worst like King Ahab, the one thing that they have in common is that, at least on occasion, they will abuse their power. The difference between the good and the bad is that the good ones will recognize their error and repent (And David said to Nathan: 'I have sinned against the Lord.'-II Samuel 12:13). Our assignment this week is to try to figure out how to minimize the dangers of abusing our powers as bosses, teachers, parents and, yes, politicians.
This week's parsha contains the section dealing with the appointment of a king over Israel. This whole scenario gets very complicated because when it's time to actually appoint a king the prophet Shmuel is against it. How can the prophet of God be against a mitzva in the Torah? That's actually the description of a false prophet. There are a number of explanations for the objection of Shmuel which are mostly presented as interpretations on the Gemara in Sanhedrin (20b), where this issues is discussed. Some say that the verses ('You shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God, chooses'-Deuteronomy 17:15) aren't an obligatory mitzva but grant permission to appoint a king. Others say (like in the Braita quoted in the Gemara) that the people didn't make their request properly. However, in every scenario the problems stated by Shmuel ('This will be the manner of the king who will reign over you; he will take your sons, and appoint them to him for his chariots and for his horsemen, and they will run before his chariots...And he will take your daughters for his perfumers, for cooks, and for bakers...And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive trees...And he will tithe your crops...And he will take your male and female slaves...And he will tithe your flocks, and you will be slaves to him.'-I Shmuel 8:11-17) is abuse of power. In effect Shmuel tells the people that even though they want a king right now, in the future they will rue the day they ever asked for a king. Nevertheless, God tells Shmuel to anoint Saul as king over Israel.
If kings are so dangerous then why does God advocate for their establishment? One could answer that they are better than the alternative. That's the rationale behind many votes we cast here in the US. After all, we are told in Pirkei Avot to pray for our governments because otherwise our societies would become jungles. But I think that a better answer is provided in our Torah reading: This is what must be done: When he sits down on the throne of his kingdom, the first thing he must do is make himself a copy of this law on a scroll, copied under the supervision of the Levitical priests. That scroll is to remain at his side at all times; he is to study it every day so that he may learn what it means to fear his God, living in reverent obedience before these rules and regulations by following them. He must not become proud and arrogant, changing the commands at whim to suit himself or making up his own versions. If he reads and learns, he will have a long reign as king in Israel, he and his sons (Deuteronomy 17-18-20).
This is the beginning of constitutional monarchy. For the first time in the history of mankind we are told that even rulers must answer to a higher authority. Throughout antiquity kings proclaimed themselves to be gods, but our monarchs must acknowledge the one true God, who is King of Kings. This recognition contributes to the goal of Jewish sovereigns realizing that they are not better than those whom they rule. We are all creations and subjects of God. I think that abuse generally stems from a warped sense of entitlement. Those with power must be taught that this authority is a responsibility not a privilege. I firmly believe that these messages can be extended to all human circumstances.
Here's the real problem: Abuse, and its alter ego, bullying, is so common, because it's natural. We see it in the animal world, too. So, how do we control natural behavior? I have two suggestions. First we must all recognize that those who abuse power, whether politicians, parents, pastors or pedagogues, aren't bad. They're making a mistake, as we all do. There are many famous studies which illustrate that almost everyone exhibits these tendencies when given the opportunity. The scariest example is the Stanford Prison Experiment, 1971, in which students became sadistic prison guards. The second thought is actually contained in the mitzva of choosing the king. The king had to read the laws of being a Jewish king. We should constantly study Torah with an eye to improving our behavior and performance. A daily dose of appropriate Torah ethics won't be one hundred percent effective, but should help curb both the frequency and severity of the tendencies in question. Raising mindfulness is a positive step to better behavior. We should read and study whatever Torah material will help us properly respect others. It couldn't hurt to start with Leviticus 19, which contains such quotes as 'Love your fellow like yourself' and 'Don't hate your brethren in your heart.'
So, be like a Torah king. Work hard to never abuse the power which you may have over others by remembering that we are not better than those over whom we have authority. Then carry some remind-full Torah material with you all the time. It's so easy today with I-phones and Kindles. Good luck, Your Majesty.