Appel's Parsha Page Parshat Shoftim: King of Israel
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Shoftim(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

King of Israel

Ronald Reagan once made an interesting observation about the Soviet constitution. He said that although most of its provisions were being ignored, the text itself was actually quite good: It affirmed human rights and liberties and in many ways seemed similar to the American Bill of Rights. Then Reagan noted a vital distinction between the two: In the Soviet constitution, the government grants rights to the people, while in the American constitution, the people grant rights to the government. The difference is profound: Whether the ultimate source of power rests with the government or with the people.

Much of this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, describes the role and responsibilities of a king of Israel. In today's age of democracy, the idea of "kingship" may sound ancient and oppressive.

But unlike other monarchs, the king of Israel has his power limited by the Torah: He may not amass money and horses, and he is restricted from marrying a large number of wives. Moreover, he is to carry a small copy of the Torah with him at all times to remind himself of his obligations.

Given all these rules, says the Vilna Gaon, it is not surprising that a person can be forced into becoming king. At first glance, one might question why anyone would decline the chance to be king -given all the expectations of honor, power and wealth.

In fact, the position of king was filled with many daunting responsibilities, not the least of which was ensuring Israel's military successes. Unlike many other monarchies, the Israelite king was required to go into the actual heat of battle and fight on the front lines with his people! Putting his life on the line proves he is a servant of the people. The notion why someone might reject the office becomes more clear.

Perhaps most significant is that the reign of a Jewish king is never imposed upon the people. The king's power derives solely from the fact that he has garnered the full support of the citizens. For example, at one point when King David accuses an enemy of rebellion against the king, Avigail reminds David he is presently not fully backed by the people - and therefore his complaint is unjustified.

The Jewish idea is that any form of government is a pragmatic necessity. The Talmud (Pirkei Avot) notes that "if it was not for fear of the government, people would swallow each other alive." Thus, according to many commentators, establishing Jewish kingship actually fulfills the Mitzvah to preserve peace among the nation.

On a deeper level, this teaches us that a monarchy is only necessary because of the nation's spiritual weakness. If people would act with proper fear of the Almighty, there would be no need for any formal government! Perhaps this explains one opinion in the Talmud which states that during the Messianic Age - when the reality of God will be fully manifest - there will be no human rulers.

Published: January 16, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Michael, August 18, 2010 4:13 AM

Roman Empire

I have read that the 'government keeps the people from killing each other' specifically referred to the Roman Empire. Prior to it's rule, history was a never ending war between states. Whilst there authority was brutal in many ways it did bring Pax Romana.

(4) JF, August 22, 2009 5:23 PM

Trying to be like everyone else.......

Yes, this has caught me many times in my life......it never works.......

(3) Bethany, August 21, 2009 10:29 AM

I always read your article

Thank you so much for your pragmatic and easy to follow explanations. I read your article weekly.

(2) Mike Clark, August 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Love your article

Your article each week truly helps me understand our Torah Parsha each week, thanks so much.
Mike

(1) , August 23, 2001 12:00 AM

G--d as a Developer

Early during the period of Israel's founding, the people looked around and saw that "everyone else" has a king. Even though it was not necessary, we also asked for a king. When we try to be like "everyone else", we always end up missing a crucial part of Judaism. But G--d is understanding and allowed us to have a king. I wonder if G--d is teaching us at our own pace. It forces me to reflect on my own Judaism. Good thoughts for reflection for Rosh Hashanna! Excellent article!

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