Friday, September 19, 2008

Parashat Shoftim

If, after you have entered the land that the LORD 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 LORD 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 LORD 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.
Deuteronomy 17:14-17
After wandering through the desert and witnessing God’s miracles and fighting for the Holy Land, we still will be exposed to the other people and the way they govern themselves. So of course we might want a king of our own. How nice of God to be understanding and allow us to learn from their examples. After all, without a ruler there is chaos, and we need to have order to be able to follow God’s laws. Remember, God’s punishments are to the third and fourth generation, not necessarily to the current one. A king punishes immediately, and only those who are judged to have done wrong. R. Shmuel says that the role of the king was to physically protect the Jewish people. So the implication is that God’s rule over us is a spiritual one.

But if the king is chosen by God, why do we need the rest of the criteria? Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels explains that these limitations are set to prevent an abuse of power, and to keep the kingship from becoming and exploitative institution (from his D’var Torah for AJWS). But perhaps the most important limitation is just after our pericope: When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll milifnei hakohanim halevi’im, “[by] the Levite priests” (Deut 17:18).

The translation of milifnei as “by” by JPS leaves a little to be desired, but “from before the Levite priests” makes no sense. It should be understood as, “according to the interpretation of the Levite priests,” which would require the king to have Levite advisors around him constantly in order to live and rule according to Torah law. This interpretation brings to light what a brilliant piece of legislature the Torah is. The writer says to the reader, “You can have someone in power in addition to me, as long as my representatives are right there, making sure you don’t get too powerful. It seems like the origin of checks and balances. I wonder if it worked as well then as it does today….

Thanks to Bob Sugarman for your help with this week’s D’var Torah.

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