This week’s Torah portion is “Shoftim” (Deuteronomy 16:8-21:9), and in it we learn how royalty must be tempered with humility. Read to the end for a great joke that captures the message.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
The word “Shoftim” means judges, offering a hint that this week’s reading discusses positions of authority and leadership from the Jewish perspective. Among these positions of authority is that of a king; specifically, the King of Israel.
A Jewish king had an absolutely tremendous amount of power. Believe it or not, he was even permitted to kill another person, at any time, for any reason. No trial needed. That’s how much power he had. But interestingly enough, he had some strange restrictions. A Jewish king was not allowed to amass too many horses, nor could he have “too many” wives (18 was generally the limit). His wealth was to be limited as well. But restriction number one upon a Jewish king was haughtiness. Let’s take a look:
“It shall be that when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah… It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear the Lord his God, to observe all the words of this Torah and these decrees, to perform them so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren, and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that he will prolong years over his kingdom, he and his sons among Israel.” (Deuteronomy 15:15-17).
The emphasis on humility is clear. You may be the king of a nation, but remember that you are a subject of God, just like everyone else.
The question is asked: Why does he need two Torahs? Why does he need to read from it “all the days of his life?” Why did the Torah not simply assign him a “right hand man (a rabbi)” who would be there to continuously remind him to be humble, and to conduct himself accordingly? Indeed, that is essentially how world leaders work, by continually consulting advisers.
Why not have a court castigator, a prophet or clergy who would sermonize monthly or even weekly? Does the king truly need to constantly carry and read a book of ethics to forever keep him in check?
I came across an interpretation by the late Rabbi Uziel Milevsky, who served as rabbi in Toronto (where I am from), among other cities. He notes that a person is supposed to speak, act, and conduct himself on the outside as he feels on the inside. We are supposed to be “what you see is what you get” type of people. No games. No hidden surprises. A person should not have one type of behavior in public and then act differently in private. Hypocrisy is a major no-no.
A Great Challenge
However, there is one person within the Jewish nation who is exempt from the “what you see is what you get” rule, and that is the King of Israel. The king is required to display a certain level of superiority and haughtiness on the outside, but on the inside, he must remain the humble person we are all expected to be.
This is a great challenge! He must always show the face and presence of a leader who is fully in charge and in control. The people must fear him. In fact, King Saul was criticized for being too humble and not enough of a hardliner.
A king needs this dual personality – powerful and demanding on the outside, humble on the inside. For this reason, a king needs two Torahs – one that accompanies him everywhere he goes (yes, they made it small!) during the day, and another to remain at home, to remind him that he is just like everyone else.
This famous Jewish joke sums it all up:
Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish lady from New York, tells her travel agent. “I want to go to India.”
“Mrs. Cohen, why India? It’s filthy, much hotter than New York, it’s filled to the brim with Indians.”
“I want to go to India.”
“But it’s a long journey, and those trains, how will you manage? What will you eat? The food is too hot and spicy for you. You can’t drink the water. You must not eat fresh fruit and vegetables. You’ll get sick: the plague, hepatitis, cholera, typhoid, malaria, God only knows. What will you do? Can you imagine the hospital, no Jewish doctors? Why torture yourself?”
“I want to go to India.”
The necessary arrangements are made, and off she goes. She arrives in India and, undeterred by the noise, smell and crowds, makes her way to an ashram. There she joins the seemingly never-ending queue of people waiting for an audience with the guru. An aide tells her that it will take at least three days of standing in line to see the guru.
“That’s OK,” Goldie says.
Eventually she reaches the hallowed portals. There she is told firmly that she may say only three words.
“Fine,” she says.
She is ushered into the inner sanctum where the wise guru is seated, ready to bestow spiritual blessings upon eager initiates. Just before reaching the “holy of holies,” she is once again reminded: “Remember, just three words.”
Unlike the other devotees, she does not prostrate at his feet. She stands directly in front of him, crosses her arms over her chest, fixes her gaze on him, and says: “Sheldon, come home!”
For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below:
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