Parashat Shoftim deals with shaping the ruling authorities of the Jewish state ahead of the people of Israel entering the land.
Of course, during ancient times, ruling authorities were different from what we’re familiar with in the modern democratic state. However, many believe that the ideas on which the modern democratic state is based already appeared in the Bible in a variety of forms, especially in this specific parasha, which discusses ruling authorities explicitly.
For example, the Bible tells us about the phenomenon of the prophet admonishing the king for his religious and social sins. This was inconceivable in ancient times, when the king’s rule was absolute. But it is based on the concept of monarchy as presented in this week’s parasha, in which the king’s power is considerably limited.
The limits on a king: A leader is never above the law
The limitations placed on the king in the parasha are three prohibitions: “Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself.... And he shall not take many wives for himself… and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself” (Deuteronomy 17:16-17).
“Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself.... And he shall not take many wives for himself… and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself.”Deuteronomy 17:16-17
The underlying significance of these prohibitions is the understanding that a king who is limited in the number of horses he has, in the number of wives he takes, or in the amount of gold and silver he amasses is one who cannot live a showy life of luxury.
Another look at the parasha teaches us of the significant restriction of the king’s power. Firstly, the relationship between the king and the nation is defined as brotherhood. The king is a “brother” of the nation.
Let’s compare this to texts found in Ugarit, a Canaanite city on the shores of the Mediterranean destroyed about 3,200 years ago – about the time the Torah was written. According to biblical scholar Joshua Berman, in his book Created Equal, he who ruled over everyone was also the father of everyone. The genealogical metaphorical use of “father” was at the top of both the political structure and the pantheon of the gods, and it represented the social and political structure of authority and dependence.
The significance of presenting the king as a “brother” versus a “father” cannot be underestimated. The metaphor of “father” expresses not only authority, but presents the nation as a consequence of the king. The nation is actually dependent on the existence of the king, without whom there would be no nation. However, the metaphor of “brother” connotes a spirit of equality and solidarity and positions the nation’s existence as corresponding to the king’s.
In this spirit, the Torah makes the following demand of the king: “so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left” (Deut. 17:20).
Just as the king is prohibited from prevailing over the nation, he is also commanded to keep the laws of the Torah, and he has no special status regarding the laws.
Here, too, the comparison with what was acceptable in those times among the neighboring nations can help us discern the profound significance of the Torah’s words. In ancient times, the king was the legislator, while it was obvious that he himself was not obligated to keep the laws as was the rest of the nation. After all, he was the father and creator of the law. As a result, he also held the position of judge. As opposed to this, the Jewish king was not the legislator. He was bound to the laws of the Torah just like his brothers, the other members of the Jewish nation. The Jewish king was also not given the role of being the judge.
Did Israel’s kings abide by these rules throughout the generations? It would be hard to say they did. Some kings were more righteous, others were less. But this week’s Torah portion sets up the ideal situation in which the king serves the nation and does not dominate it.
There is an ideological call here that we should be heeding ourselves. Though we are far from being a monarchy, the Torah reminds us that leaders are not above the law, and that their job is to serve the people and see to its well-being. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.