The King and I

When you come to the land the Lord, your G-d, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me.” [Deuteronomy 17:14]
Something doesn’t seem quite right about the order of things in this week’s Torah portion. The opening of Shoftim, or Judges, talks about the need to appoint a judiciary in every community. That judiciary must be supported by law enforcement to ensure that the decisions of the judges are executed.
Then, the Torah lays down the ground rules of the judiciary. The judges must be honest, incorruptible, show no favoritism and pursue justice at all costs. Later, comes the command to establish a monarchy.
Shouldn’t the order be the opposite? The king should first establish his rule, impose his authority and then organize a justice system. The nation should rely on the king to make sure things work and well.
But that’s not the way things work.
Instead, the Torah sets two standards. The standard for justice is primary. The nation of Israel requires honest judges and police at all times and under all circumstances. Without justice, the nation, the people, fall in the eyes of G-d and become easy picking for their enemies.
The command for a monarchy is different. First, there is no monarchy outside the Land of Israel. Second, the appointment of a king is voluntary — only when the Jews want it. Unlike the judges, G-d selects the monarch. Three, the king is bound to the same laws as his subjects. In fact, he is a servant of Israel and not its master.
you shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother. [Deuteronomy 17:15]
Indeed, the Torah’s restrictions on the king exceed that of ordinary men. There are no limits to wealth among the common folk. There are limits to how much gold and silver a king can amass.
A commoner can marry as many women as he chooses. A king cannot.
A commoner can acquire as many horses as he wishes. A king is limited to horses needed for his military or basic personal needs.
An ordinary Jew can pray in synagogue and then catch the 8:05 to Midtown. A king must always learn the Torah. In fact, he must write the Torah scroll and attach it to his forearm. Why? Unlike the commoner, the king cannot for a minute forget who appointed him and what he is expected to do.
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, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel. [Deuteronomy 17:20]
David was not the first king of Israel. He succeeded Saul, a man regarded as more pious and modest than the young shepherd. But Saul couldn’t manage to listen to G-d while David always sought the divine word. Saul ran a formal royal court. He stood apart from the nation. David eschewed most protocol and spent his nights learning Torah and singing to G-d on his harp.
When David was ready to pass the royal mantle, he gave his son a crucial message. He told 13-year-old Solomon that his most important task would not be expanding the kingdom, building cities or launching ambitious programs. The crucial element would be justice.
May he judge the poor of the people; may he save the children of the needy and crush the oppressor. [Psalms 72:4]
If Solomon does that then everything will succeed. The rain will fall, the crops will grow, poverty will be eliminated, peace will reign, and the righteous will flourish.
It didn’t quite that happen that way. Solomon reasoned that he was smarter and more capable than anybody else. Yes, the Torah set a limit on 18 wives. Solomon took 1,000 wives, many if not all of them gentiles. Soon, the women were bringing in idols and taking over parts of Jerusalem. Within years of his death, 10 out of 12 tribes seceded and established a rival kingdom. This, too, soon descended into corruption and idolatry.
Why? Because with all the pomp and circumstance, Israel lacked honest and courageous judges.
A few years ago, Shelly Timon was a leading judge in the State of Israel. He was on the bench of the Tel Aviv District Court, the busiest in the country. He couldn’t stomach what he saw — corruption, venality, cowardice. No, he wasn’t talking about the defendants. He was talking about the police, the prosecutors and some of his own colleagues.
Timon resigned.
“I felt I could not do justice. for those who were rotting away in prison, some of them completely innocent.”
In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television in 2019, Timon outlined the rot seen every day by any defense attorney. Cases were delayed for years while defendants sat in prison or depleted their savings, a situation he termed a “threat to democracy.” Prosecutors were driven by ego to attain convictions regardless of evidence. Police were sloppy, dishonest and often resorted to fabricating evidence.
And then came his judgment on not a few of his colleagues. Timon said the judges were driven to placate a media that automatically accepted the police and prosecution version against defendants. These judges were scared of their superiors and almost always handed down a guilty verdict regardless of the evidence. The payback was that these judges were usually immune to charges that they themselves had committed criminal acts.
“There are judges — a few — who do not recognize the word ‘not guilty,'” Timon, who asserted that he had been threatened with prosecution, said. The judges are influenced by what will be said about them, the previous day or the next day.”[Timon interview with Channel 2, Jan. 23, 2019.]
Jewish history would not argue with Timon. The corruption of the judges, prosecutors and police has eroded Israel from its first days. The Torah is not a coffee table book, rather a guide for life. Follow it and Israel thrives. Ignore or distort it and society collapses. No king, no matter how powerful, can stop that.
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your G-d, is giving you. [Deuteronomy 16:20]
About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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