Crown of the empress By mararie cc: flickr
The discussion on the establishment of the regime brings up an important question about the need of a king and the monarchic system and the system of judges and officers. Rabbi Sigal Asher examines the realization of justice in the monarchic system as a part of Dvar Torah to parashat Shoftim.
“Judges and officers shalt thou make in all thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy, XVI,18)
The parasha opens with orders to appoint judges and officers. Judges pass judgment, officers carry out the judgment (and are mentioned later in connection with going to war).
There are a few rules concerning the conduct of judges: “Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons; neither shalt thou take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise , and pervert the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (XVI, 19-20).
The beginning of the parasha deals with the legal system. Only later on does the parasha deal with the system of government. Here there is an important proclamation: Justice is the most important thing, its existence is the basis of all community life. Without justice, we cannot talk about government.
The need of a king along side with judges and officers
“When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein ; and shalt say: “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me”;thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose” (XVII, 14-15).
In contrast to the judges and officers, who must be appointed, there is controversy as to whether it is ordered that there be a king, or whether this is something to be decided on by the will of the people. Some interpreters saw in the words “thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee” a compulsory religious command. Others looked at “and shalt say,” and said that this was not compulsory but permissible, depending on the decision of the people: If the people so wish, a king will rule.
It is interesting, incidentally, to look at the view of proper government held by Don Yitzhak Aberbanel , who lived in the 15th century: he thought that an elected government, composed of several people, and changed at determined intervals of time, was better. This way the actions of government would be under supervision. He also said that there was in the power of a group of rulers, to restrain the inclination of a single ruler to commit crimes and to do wrong.
In contrast to the short passage dealing with the kind of legal system there should be, the Torah elaborates extensively on the conduct of the king, who is appointed by the will of the people, and lays down very clear rules:
- “One from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother” (XVII, 15) – the king must be “from among thy brethren” and not a foreigner. It is forbidden to “import” a successful king from somewhere else. The purpose of this is not to bring in a foreign king, who will draw people to idol worship. In addition to this, it sounds logical that the ruler should know the local culture and social structure of his kingdom.
- “Only he shall not multiply horses to himself…neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold” (XVII, 16-17) – the king must not enrich himself: horses, women, silver and gold: Many horses are evidence of his military strength (and he does not need military strength. Later on in the parasha, when going to war is discussed, the king is not mentioned at all. Mention is made of judges, officers and priests). Many women are evidence of sensual pleasures. Silver and gold are evidence of the wealth of their owner.
Wealth by itself is not bad
One could ask: What is bad about wealth? In fact, being wealthy is not bad in itself, and there is no sweeping statement that wealth is something bad. It is rather that there are things that a private individual can do, that a public figure should avoid. The emphasis is on the word “fitting.”
One may ask, for example, if it is fitting for ministers to buy luxury cars, at a time when the tax burden on the vulnerable sectors is increasing. One may ask if it is fitting for someone who holds public office to dine at luxury restaurants every day. There is nothing wrong with wealth, but a person who holds public office should impose on himself stricter standards of conduct, and should remember that he is the servant of the public that elected him.
What is the king allowed to do? “And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law…And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life…that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he not turn aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left” (XVII, 18-20) – The king should learn and remember the rules on which society is based, the rules which govern his subjects. The king must not abuse his position, he must behave with humility: “that his heart not be lifted above his brethren.”
And after all these prohibitions, what will be the role of the king? From what is written (and especially from what is not written) one can understand that the role of the king is primarily symbolic. He does not judge (for this there are judges and officers). He does not deal with war (because, later on in the parasha, when going to war is discussed, judges, officers and priests are mentioned. The king is not mentioned at all). The Torah does not describe the role of the king. One can conclude from this that the king that the people want is a symbolic king, perhaps without any authority at all.
And, if these are the rules of conduct for a king who does not have any real function in governing the community, one can only imagine the rules that should apply to elected public officials who are able to take decisions in the name of the people.
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