Frederick L. Klein

Parashat Shoftim: The Trappings of Power

King Tutankhamen (image courtesy of Pixabay,

Every day it seems like another well-known person- whether a politician, business leader, or a sports star becomes embroiled in some form of scandal.  It can be a leader withholding top secret documents, a CEO of a medical company duping investors of a medical technology that does not work, or a quarterback with numerous sexual abuse allegations.   We are tempted to cast judgment on these individuals.  “I would never do that!” we might say.

However, I am not sure that should be our initial reaction.  Rather, I tend to reflect upon the sources of these egregious breaches of trust.  All of them have a common denominator: they are all abuses that are born of an excessive amassing of power.  With power, possibilities that were once seen as impossible suddenly become possible; most of us are not tempted in things which are completely unattainable.  However, as power grows, so does one’s appetites and one’s temptations, and without any external impediments or limitations, people may act upon them.  Framed this way, the abuses we see all around us are as much about the human heart as it is about someone else.   King David, the author of the Psalms and a man of God, nonetheless succumbed to a scandal with Bat Sheva, sending her husband to the front of a battle to die in order to marry his wife.  It was a scandal that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  If King David, the righteous king, and Psalmist, can abuse his own authority, how can I be so sure I would not as well?

Deuteronomy is a book that lays out a very utopian vision of society.  While not actively promoting any form of government per se, the book is obsessed with a few overarching themes.  First, no person should amass too much power to themselves.  Second, final authority resides in the law and those who interpret that law, whether those are judges, priests, or prophets. In essence, Moses constructs a system in which all citizens have roles, but they are all ultimately kinsman (achicha), all subjects of God and God’s law. The book is a sustained argument for the limits of power, and in this sense, it provides a precedent to our own republic, also built upon a government that limits power between various branches and jurisdictions.

These two themes converge in the Torah’s description of the king (17:14-20).  There is a debate among the medieval scholars whether appointing a king is a positive commandment, simply a necessity, or even negative.  In certain texts the king is idealized (e.g., Psalm 2) and in other places (Samuel 8) the very request for a king is seen as a rebellion of sorts against God.  Whether appointing a king is or is not a mitzvah, the very nature of the king is fundamentally different from any Ancient Near Eastern vision of a king.   In the Ancient Near East, the king was the very apex of the social hierarchical order below, reflective of the hierarchical order among the gods in the heaven. As above, so below. Unlike the Torah, in which every human being partakes in the image of God and therefore is endowed with innate dignity, humans in this Ancient Near Eastern system were subjects to the will of the king, to provide service and uphold the social order.  Of course, this upper class was extremely small, and there was no ability to change one’s place. [1]  In Egypt and other systems, Pharoah became a god or demigod himself!  Here power is so concentrated in one person that the person becomes deified.  The battle between God and Pharaoh in Exodus was not just a repudiation of Pharaoh, but everything Pharaoh represented.

The Torah opens up with an admission that there will be a future time in which the people may ask for a king ‘like the other nations.’  Indeed, the loose organization of Israel under the tribes (‘the Articles of Confederation”), left the people vulnerable to external threats and internal squabbles.  Centralization of authority in and of itself may not be detrimental, and even necessary for the proper functioning of a society. (See the comments of Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman in his commentary on the Torah.)  Yet the Torah presents specific regulations upon the king.  First, the king must be ‘your brother’, i.e., one of you. Furthermore, God is to choose this king (through the prophet), as the king must have the correct moral and religious qualities.  Unlike the Ancient Near Eastern kings who saw themselves as demigods, these kings were of the people and answerable to God. Then the Torah imposes upon the king three negative regulations: the king must not amass wives, horses, or impose excessive taxes upon the people.  To understand these regulations, we must understand the context of these laws.

Marrying wives has primarily nothing to do with the sexual appetites of the king, although later rabbinic texts do discuss this.  Rather, as is well known throughout history, kings married women of other nations in order to solidify political power.  Aristocracy thereby maintained and strengthened their position vis-à-vis everyone else.  The Jewish king, ‘of and for the people’, cannot do this. Furthermore, these alliances would create the conditions in which foreign gods and values would penetrate the consciousness of the king and the people (M. Sanhedrin 2:4).  Similarly, horses were the latest military technology.  As we know from Egypt, the horse and chariot was a formidable military force.  Thus, the king is not allowed to amass too much military power. The potential exists for him to use this force for his own personal goals.  Finally, the king by imposing unreasonable taxes could centralize economic power, impoverishing everyone else.  (In fact, the rebellion of the northern kingdom of Israel which led to the division of ancient Israel began with the oppressive taxes under King Solomon and becoming worse under his son Rehavam.  The split weakened ancient Israel, making them more prone to invasions from both Egypt in the South and Assyria in the north.)

Thus, the Torah is telling us that the king should not amass too much political, military, or financial power.  Too much of any of these forms of power would transform the leader into another Ancient Near Eastern tyrant.  When a person has unlimited power, they have unlimited capacity for abuse.  They also have the capacity to act on any of their darker desires. Thus, what the Torah is in essence doing is demanding that the Jewish king eschew the very trappings of kingship itself.  The monarch is anti-monarch.

Finally, the king is given one positive mitzvah. The king is commanded to write a copy of the Torah and to have it with him always.  He must read it in order that ‘he learn to fear God, to observe all the words of this law and the statutes, to do them’ (17:9).  He is told not to deviate from these laws ‘either left or right.’  In other words, the king not only must model limited power, but must publicly acknowledge that he is subject like everyone else to God’s laws and those entrusted with its appropriate interpretation- whether that is the Levite, the judges, or the prophets.  If he does all these things, the king will be blessed with longevity on the throne.

We are living in a time in which democracy is in danger, and across the globe autocratic forms of thinking are on the rise.  The teachings of our parashah are as relevant as ever.  To create a just society, one built upon true equality, we must ensure that there is a balance of powers in such a way that no one person or persons can amass too much, and that all people are subject to law.  This is the message of the Jewish king.

The Israeli public intellectual Micah Goodman pointed out that the book of Deuteronomy in many respects is the autobiography of Moses, as he tells his life story from his perspective.  Unlike other leaders who later write their own autobiographies, thereby shaping their images and extolling their greatness, Moses’s autobiography is unusual.  Moses never speaks of his own greatness, but rather curiously writes himself out of the narrative.  God and not he is the source of their blessing, and God is the main character.   When the Torah says that he was ‘the most modest of all men’, he certainly was.  If Moses had an ego, it is difficult to find it in Deuteronomy.

Moses, the ultimate Jewish leader, is not a king, and his children play no role in Jewish history; they do not inherit from him.  Rather, the founder of the nation is a shepherd, one who tirelessly tends and cares for his flock. Unlike the Pharaohs who are buried in grand pyramids underscoring their worldly power, Moses, the greatest leader of Israel, is buried in an unmarked grave on a desert mountaintop.   It has been noted that the Haggadah tells the Exodus from Egypt but omits the name of Moses from the narrative. However, the first to do this was Moses himself in the book of Deuteronomy! [2]   Even if others saw him erringly as a demigod and wonderworker, Moses is deliberate in Deuteronomy to relate that his role was that of a servant of God.  In Jewish memory, Moses is not our king but rather our teacher.  It is Moses that is the giver of the law, and he underscores that even he is subject to that law.  Moses is not beyond accountability, and when he sins God denies him the capacity to lead the people into the land of Israel.   This very human portrait of Moses is remarkable considering the self-aggrandizement of Near Eastern kings, in which they praise their great deeds and power. Similarly, the Jewish King cannot allow power ‘to go to his head’ and realize that he has been placed in his position to exercise justice and uphold the values of the Torah.

In concluding, I would like to translate this on a personal level, as most of us will not be assuming kingship any time soon. Yet, on one level we are kings of a kingdom, and that kingdom is our inner life.  The Chasidic masters point out that most of the great struggles in the outer world are mere reflections of the worlds which are within the self.  Tikkun olam begins within, tikkun hamidot, working on your own inner qualities.[3]  Do not believe the world will be redeemed until we are able to redeem the inner heart, because the outer worlds reflect the dreams and desires of the inner heart.

Thankfully, we live in a world in which each of us are blessed with real power.  We have capacity that few could imagine in previous generations, and that would even include kings of the past.  Given this, we need to be mindful and create limits for ourselves.  Are we being corrupted by the very blessings and power we have amassed?  Do we recognize our religious and ethical responsibilities and see ourselves answerable to others and an Other?  Because of our power, the impacts of our actions can reverberate, and for some of us even on a global level.  Hence, more than ever we need to be mindful, ‘to read from our Torah every day’.

Shabbat shalom

[1] See Joshua A. Berman, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Though, (Oxford University Press: USA, 2008): 18-27

[2] See lecture two Deuteronomy: The Last Speech of Moses – The Tikvah Fund

[3] The Sages said, “‘Seek peace’ – in your place [‘and pursue it’ in another place]” (Tanhuma Hukat, 22). You cannot seek peace anywhere but within yourself, until you find it there. In Psalms it is said, “There is no peace in my bones because of my sin” (Psalms 38:4). Only if we find peace inside ourselves can we seek it throughout the world.  (R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, Poland, 1765–1827, cited in Martin Buber, The Way of Man, p. 32).  Thank you to R. Shmuly Yanklowitz for this source.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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