ABOVE THE LAW
Rabbi David Walk
There are certain colorful words which conjure up unscrupulous heads of states; tyrant, despot, strongman. But the term, I think, that best does the job is 'dictator'. This expression comes from the Latin dictare, which means to decree or state with authority. The whole essence of the dictator is that whatever issues from their mouth is the law. They don't just dictate policy, they control the purpose and mission of the state. It's a powerful and despicable position. Louis XIV of France said it best, 'l'etat c'est moi' or 'The State? It is I,' but it sounds better in French. This shocking idea was common to monarchs throughout history. The absolute right of kings meant that the country was basically the private property of the monarch. Thank God, this idea sounds absurd to most of us today. However, this absurdity contained a remarkable irony. The European countries which asserted this madness, based it on the Bible. That misconception is what I'd like to discuss this week.
We must remember that in the ancient world, kings and queens were worshipped as deities. So, in retrospect, the move toward the 'divine right of kings' seems like progress. The Church supported the power of royalty based on the story in I Samuel, King David is being pursued by King Saul to the area around Ein Gedi. There Saul relieved himself in a cave where David was hiding. David cuts a small corner from Saul's tunic, and David's followers are aghast that he didn't kill the old king and end the madness. But David makes the pronouncement which henceforth is quoted as the source for monarchical power, 'The Lord forbid it for me, that I should do this thing to my liege, the Lord's anointed, to stretch forth my hand upon him, for he is the Lord's anointed (I Samuel 24:7).' Of course, the Hebrew for 'anointed' is mashiach. This led to the common belief in the Middle Ages that the monarch rules through the 'Grace of God'. Perhaps Richard I of England said it best (or worst, if you will) in 1193, 'I am born in a rank which recognizes no superior but God.' I'm surprised Robin Hood like him so much. But our parsha seems to disagree with this assessment.
This week's Torah reading is basically the Jewish version of PoliSci 101. We have the role of judges and the status of the cohen clearly defined, and we also have the command to appoint a king. 'You shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God, chooses (Deuteronomy 17:15).' There are, of course, many controversies about the injunction. Is it an obligation or permission? Why was the prophet Samuel so upset when the Jews requested a king? But this week I'd prefer to ignore all of those issues to focus on a technical point: The verse's statement is double, sam tasim. Why? The Ohr Hachayim wrote about 250 years ago that there were two purposes for appointing a king. First, and foremost he is to defend the nation and lead it into war. This should actually be self-evident because the primary role of government is to protect its citizens. However, the holy rabbi went on to explain that the king should also increase the glory and splendor of Israel in the eyes of God. The monarch's ability to rule and protect is directly proportional to the relationship between God and the nation. The ruler must cement this bond with God. The paradigm for this is King David.
How is this king of Israel to accomplish this goal? On the one hand we have limitations on the king's wives, horses and money. Too much of any of these items could prevent one from successful leadership, but the main guidance comes in this verse, 'And when the king sits on the throne of the kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests (verse 18).' The next verse explains that this text must be read to the monarch every day. The path to successful rule is Torah study. But there's a bit of a controversy. The word for 'copy' is mishneh. This word carries a bit of ambiguity. It can mean copy or review (a second time) but many commentaries translate it as 'two'. In other words, the king must have two Torah's. Why? Simple, in both royal jobs, defender of the realm and defender of the faith, he must recognize the ultimate authority of the Torah. The Torah is teaching us that no one is above the law.
How can we tell that our monarch recognizes the absolute authority of the Torah? Well, it could be that we notice that the king continually asks for rulings from the Torah scholars of the realm, and heeds their advice. But I think that the greatest test is when the king makes a mistake. The dictator, autocrat, narcissist never apologizes. When you are the law; when you alone arbitrate what is good and what it is bad, then you can't err. The concept of error wouldn't compute.
This brings me to my final point. Why was the House of Judah and its continuation, the House of David chosen to be God's anointed? Because they knew how to admit error, and do it publicly. Judah in the case of Tamar, when he publicly announced her innocence, his guilt (Genesis 38:27). King David, also publicly repented in the aftermath of the sin with Bat Sheva, when he announces that he has sinned (II Samuel 12:13). The coolest thing, of course, is that God forgives, because they repented sincerely. Something to think about as Elul begins.
Our large and complex societies require skilled leaders, who understand the intricacies of governance, the needs of the people, and their own limitations. The greatest leaders, like Moshe Rabbeinu, understand that leadership is responsibility, not privilege. May both of the countries that I love dearly be blessed with leaders who understand that they enforce the law, not dictate it.