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Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land

that the Lord your God is giving you.”  (Deuteronomy 16:18)

Deuteronomy delivers one consistent message:  don’t be like the other nations.  Be different; follow the laws of the Torah.  It’s puzzling, therefore, to read in Parashat Shoftim, Moses saying to the Israelites,

”If, after you have entered the land…you decide, ’I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me.’” (Deut. 17:13)  Suddenly it’s OK to be like everyone else?

The Torah presents a singular notion of kingship, though.  It does not describe his rights or authority (as it does for the prophets and priests). Nor does it describe any governmental functions or responsibility.  In fact, the Torah commands the king to do three things only:  write out a copy of the Torah for himself, keep it with him, and study it all his life.

While it’s true that Jewish kings ultimately acquire significant power and prestige, their authority never becomes absolute and never includes the ability to legislate. The prophets were expected to criticize the king (and did so quite frequently), reminding him of the limits of the monarchy and its true purpose.  Jewish kings were not intended to rule (that was God’s prerogative) but rather to serve as moral exemplars.  The purpose of the king’s incessant Torah study was to ensure that God’s commands (rather than the king’s) were followed and, importantly, “that he will not act haughtily toward his brothers.” (Deut. 17:20) By using the word “brothers” the Torah stresses the equality before the law of other citizens with the king.

The establishment of the Jewish monarchy recognizes that the Israelites, like all other people, need social order (and symbols of order) to feel secure.  The limit of the Jewish monarchy is a reminder that social order is rooted in morality, not power.

Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,


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