In an election year, when you come across anything in Torah that speaks about government and rulers, it’s hard not to take special notice. And this week’s Torah portion has a remarkable comment on the way our leaders should behave.
When you arrive in the land that Hashem, you God, is giving you and you receive it and live in it, and you say “Let me appoint over me a king like all the nations around me” you shall set a king over you. (Devarim 17:14)
Then it lists a series of instructions and requirements for choosing said king. And among them are three things a king should avoid.
…he must not acquire an abundance of horses for himself…
And he is not to acquire an abundance of wives for himself…
…silver and gold he may not accumulate for himself in great abundance.
Does that describe any ruler you’ve ever heard of? Granted these days presidents tend to have only one wife, but politicians aren’t known for their fidelity. Even in biblical times, I would expect a king to be rich. And we all know the ending to Humpty Dumpy, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men…” So if these prohibitions seem so at odds of what we know about rulers, what are we missing?
Taking a bit of a detour, there’s a mishneh (4:21) in Ethics of the Fathers.
Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kapar says, “Jealousy, lust, and desire for honor remove a man from the world.”
We can all agree jealousy, lust, and coveting honor are bad. But what does it mean that they remove a man from the world? Back when I used to do acting, during my senior year there was a play I really wanted to be in. It was called Mother Courage. It was a main stage show with grad students and faculty acting in it. And there were a handful of roles for undergrads. Needless to say I didn’t get the part. But when I went to go see the show, I literally couldn’t concentrate on the plot. I was so consumed with jealousy over my friends who had gotten cast, all I could do is critique everything in front of me. I was taken out of the world.
The mishneh is saying that these particular attributes are so strong that if someone goes after them, they’ll consume their attention and override their rational judgement. We all know this to be true for lust (and the Hebrew word is taivah and refers to a lust for anything; sex, food, cigarettes). And honor, oy! People have gone to war over the feelings of being slighted.
The King’s Share
The rabbis say that the three prohibitions for the king correspond to jealousy, lust, and honor. Obviously the wives prohibition is lust. Horses were the biblical equivalent to a Lamborghini. Being ostentations with wealth is what honor is all about. Lastly, gold and silver correspond to jealousy. Because among billionaires, a millionaire feels poor and humiliated. So if these traits take a regular man out of the world, if a king fell into their trap, he could misuse the resources of the nation to fulfill his never ending desires. Not just taking him out of the world, but the nation along with him. And that is a particularly scary thing.
But if you go back to the parsha, after it lists these prohibitions it then says…
It shall be, that when he occupies the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a duplicate of this Torah in a scroll before the kohanim and the Levites. It is to accompany him and he is to read in it all the days of his life… (Devarim 17: 18-19)
If you’re familiar with the rules of writing a Torah, it’s no easy matter. The parchment must be of a kosher animal, the letters have to be practically calligraphy, and if you make a mistake the Torah has to be destroyed and you have to start all over. If you want to buy a Torah today, they cost between 20 and 30 thousand dollars.
The Torah is saying that for a king to be able to overcome his desires for the good of the nation, he must devote time to not just reading and mastering the concepts of morality and ethics, but he must intimately understand every letter and review it every day.
In the elections of America, devotion to religion and knowledge of the Bible are essential for one group of voters and unattractive to another group. But obviously the Torah is talking about a Jewish king of Israel, so the bible may not be the necessary source of ethics for an American president. But to stand up to the temptations available to a person with near absolute power, the Torah’s demand of intimate involvement on some sort of ethical authority is absolutely essential.