“When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll by the Levite priests” (Devarim 17: 18).
Though I was very young, I remember watching the wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles with my mom in our family room. Apparently we were amongst the billion viewers who watched from all over the world as Diana’s 25-foot train followed her down the aisle of St. Paul’s cathedral. The pomp and circumstance were unmatched, and even words like majestic or regal would have only cheapened the event.
For me and my mom and the rest of the world, this was the image of royalty. Wealth beyond measure. Unimaginable beauty and ornament. These people were not like us; the royal family were presented almost like gods.
Yet when the Torah discusses the concept of a king, we are presented with a very different picture than that of the British Royal Family. That is not to say that the description of the King of Israel is a simple and impoverished person; not so. The king must wear elegant clothing and get his hair cut every day. He must exude competence and authority. But nevertheless there is another essential facet to the image of the King of Israel, and that is humility.
How do the Torah’s laws of the king indoctrinate the quality of humility without diminishing his majesty, and why is that balance so essential?
At the end of Chapter 17 in Devarim, Moshe outlines several laws unique to the king. And if we look at these with the elaboration of the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Kings and Kingship, we can see the Torah’s nuanced vision of the king.
First, the prohibitions. The king cannot acquire too many horses, only enough for his cavalry. Why not? Lest he present himself with too much pageantry.
The king cannot marry more than 18 wives. Now, that might still seem like a large number of wives. But if we compare that to the number of wives which King Shlomo wrongly took, 700 wives and 300 concubines, we can get a picture of the Torah’s concern.
The king is also not allowed to amass large sums of personal wealth, only enough to pay his soldiers and servants. Any accumulated funds should be amassed in the Temple treasury for the good of the community, and not his own. Why? Lest pride gets the better of him.
In addition to the prohibitions, there are important positive mitzvot as well. He must write or have commissioned his own Sefer Torah. He must study the Torah every day. He must have it with him at all times, whether in the palace or on the battlefield.
And though in public everyone must bow to the king, in private the king must stand for the Torah scholar.
True, the king is the ruler over the nation, and can even decree death over his subjects. But his word is not the final word. His power only comes to him through the Torah. He is subjected to a higher power whose words he must read every day and ingrain into his heart. And therefore the Rambam teaches that he must be exceedingly humble. The king must understand his limits; he can never command that which the Torah forbids. Yet the nation must treat the king with tremendous honor and reverence.
So here is the bottom line: the ideal picture which the Torah presents is a humble king who is greatly revered by his people. This allows the king to rule with absolute authority, while also removing his personal biases. It’s good public policy. But there is a deeper message here as well.
Though this person may be called the king, there is truly only one king, the King of Kings. It is no accident that the Torah dictates that the king of flesh and blood should be humble; this is because Hashem, The King, is humble as well, so to speak.
In his famous teaching on the Hebrew month of Elul, which started just this week, the first Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Sheur Zalman of Liadi, offers a parable of a king and his servants. Usually, the king receives only the most important visitors in his palace. But out of a sense of abundant love for the people, the king goes out to meet them in the field. Why the field? In the field everyone, no matter their social status, can come and greet the king.
In Elul, the month of compassion, we don’t have to come to the king; the king comes to greet us wherever we are. This expresses the shared love between the king and his people. Of course, even in the field the king is the king, and the people are the people. But everyone can see that the king holds each of them in his heart, just as they love the king in their own hearts. “I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me.”
So the humility that the king of flesh and blood must embody is essential not only for the king, but also for the people. He is not a god, but rather he is the great representative of God. The people can know God’s love and compassion for them through the king’s love and compassion. In this way he can teach an essential lesson; he can teach about God’s humility and compassion, and that we are in God’s heart always, no matter what we’ve done this past year.
As we step into the month of Elul and prepare for the upcoming High Holidays, the vision of the humble king who is beloved by his people can offer us a window into our own hearts. No matter what we’ve done in this past year, this is the time to open ourselves to Hashem and express our desire to be closer and to do better. And to whatever extent we open our hearts, Hashem is in the field ready to receive us, as we are always in the heart of the king.
What do you think? Does the image of God as a loving and humble king resonate with you? In what ways can you open your heart to Hashem during the month of Elul?
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