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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Shof'tim 5764
Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
August 21, 2004     4 Elul 5764

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matt Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow

Tension is the home in which Jewish history has thrived. Prior to and with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the clarion call of Zionism declared that the Jewish people must become "a nation as all other nations." While the Zionist argument represents a plea for normalcy and acceptance within the international community, it also seems to reject the classical notion of Jewish chosenness - that the Jews are a chosen and unique people. How is it possible to reconcile this contradiction between the Zionist dream and the traditional understanding of the Jewish polity? Parashat Shof'tim sheds light on this seemingly timeless dilemma.

In Deuteronomy 17, we read, "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 . . ."(17:14). The passage then delineates restrictions placed on this human ruler. As we read the text, we cannot help but hear the disappointment in the Divine Voice. God is the one true monarch of Israel. Thus, the installment of a human king, albeit an Israelite king subject to the rule of Torah, seems to raise a hint of competition between the earthly and heavenly realms. Rabbinic midrash is clearly sensitive to the tone of this legislation. In Sifre Deuteronomy (Parashat Shof'tim, piska 13), Rabbi Nehorai teaches: "This [law] is a condemnation of Israel, 'for they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them (I Samuel 8:7)' ". Rabbi Nehorai casts further aspersions on the biblical Israelites, writing, "they demanded a king only so that he might lead them into idolatry"(ibid.). Perhaps Rabbi Nehorai's comment is an overstatement. After all, having lived through the period of the Judges in which chaos was more the norm than the exception, one could easily understand why the Israelites would prefer centralized rule. As the editors of The Jewish Political Tradition point out, "the appeal of monarchy lies precisely in.a dynasty, extended across generations, promising strong government, legitimacy and continuity over time" (111). How can the Israelites succeed in avoiding the pitfalls of other nations when they anoint a king?

The Torah's wisdom is reflected in the limits that are imposed on the monarch. Scripture warns, "he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt..and he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess" (Deuteronomy 17:16). Most importantly, "when he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah...so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God."(ibid. 17:18,19). The ruler's primary concern should be defending the Israelites; limits on the number of horses constrain offensive power and focus the ruler on internal governance. The ruler's family should live in harmony and not occupy all his attentions, so he must limit his passions, not only in the public domain, but also in the private domain. Excess wealth may lead to pride, selfishness and waste, thus the ruler must practice moderation in the acquisition of riches. Finally, the learning of Torah, will cultivate and sharpen an attitude of respect for all subjects as creations in the Divine Image. A monarch who sets the Torah above personal whim will protect his subjects fairly. Taken together, the restrictions create a humble leader, not a ruthless dictator.

The parashah's wise legislation on the monarchy transcends the biblical context, shedding light on modern-day Israel and on the delicate balance of power. While Israel rightfully strives for a sense of normalcy within the community of nations, it must also recognize its unique character. Remembering that we were slaves in Egypt, cherishing the principle of saving life above all else, and affirming the Divine Image in every individual, are at the core of what it means to be an Israelite. Ultimately, like the biblical monarch, a Torah of humility and respect must inform what Israel is and what it aspires to be.

With wishes for a good week and Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matt Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.