Aug 14, 2021, 6 Elul 5781
Torah: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12
The King and I
Parashat Shoftim describes the various leaders who will govern Jewish society once the Israelites enter the Promised Land: judges, magistrates, prophets, priests, and, surprisingly, a king. This is the first time the Torah makes any mention of an Israelite king, and the Torah’s description suggests that it is an unusual institution – one that is more about the limits of power than about its centralization. The king may not amass too much wealth, he may not have too many wives (which was a way of forging diplomatic alliances), nor may he have too many horses (which were used in battle). Indeed, amidst all the laws about what the king may not do, the Torah makes only one stipulation about what the king must do – and it is this stipulation that captures the attention of the ancient rabbis, who show how the king can serve as a model for us all.
Unlike the command to appoint judges and magistrates in the opening verse of our parashah, the Torah does not command that a king be appointed, but merely grants dispensation to do so: “If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself” (Deuteronomy 17:14-15). These verses imply that the king may not be appointed immediately, but only after the people first enter and settle the land – ensuring that the king will not be able to take credit for the conquest or present himself as the founder of the nation. The Torah suggests that the reason the people might want a king is because “all the other nations” around them have kings as well. In general, as the book of Deuteronomy repeatedly emphasizes, the Israelites are not supposed to imitate the practices of the other nations. But God is prepared to allow the people to have a king, so long as his sovereignty remains limited.
In addition to the limitations on the king’s wives, wealth, and weapons of war, which serve to curtail his diplomatic and military powers, the king’s power is also limited by the Torah’s sole stipulation about what the king must do. The Torah’s only positive commandment pertaining to the king is that he must write the text of the Torah for himself: “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall write for himself a copy of this teaching on a scroll before the Levitical priests” (17:18). The king must copy the Torah for himself in a ceremony that takes place in the presence of the Levites and priests – an injunction that implies a separation of powers: the king is not a religious leader, but is accountable to the religious leadership of the Levites and priests, as well as to God’s Torah. Once the king copies the Torah, it becomes part of his personal property, as the next verse suggests: “Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this teaching” (17:19). The king must never issue a single proclamation or pass a single law without his own copy of the Torah at his side, in the hope that all his royal acts will be guided and informed by Torah.
The ancient rabbis pick up on the unusual language used to describe the scroll that the king must copy and carry. The Torah refers to this teaching as “Mishneh Torah.” This phrase, which implies a sort of “second Torah,” is generally used to refer to the book of Deuteronomy, which consists of Moshe’s summary of the preceding biblical books. But the midrashic rabbis argue that, in fact, the king is supposed to copy the entire Torah, citing the second half of this verse, in which the king must observe “every word” of this teaching (Sifrei Deuteronomy 160). Why then does the Torah refer to it as “Mishneh Torah”? The term “mishneh” is related to the Hebrew word for “two” (sheni), but it is also related to the Hebrew word for “change” (shinui), which explains the continuation of this midrash: “If so, why is it called ‘mishneh Torah’? Because in the future it will change.” The king is bound by Torah, but the Torah he is bound by is characterized by the potential to evolve and, in so doing, to remain ever relevant.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) offers a different explanation for the Torah’s use of the term “Mishneh Torah” to refer to the entire Torah which the king must copy. According to the Talmudic rabbis, the term “mishneh” suggests that the king had to copy two Torah scrolls – one that he takes with him wherever he goes, and one that rests in his treasury. The portable Torah scroll is described in the Talmud as a “sort of amulet” that the king would hang on his arm – like a smartphone playing podcasts of Torah classes, perhaps. The other Torah stays in the king’s treasury for safekeeping, like an heirloom Bible. Except that neither scroll can really be an heirloom because, as the Talmud teaches, the king may not use the same Torah scroll as his ancestors, but must write his own.
At this point the Talmudic sage Rava interjects that it is not just the king who must write his own Torah, but every single person: “Even if a person’s ancestors left him a Torah scroll, it is a mitzvah to write a scroll of one’s own.” Every person has to find a way to rewrite Torah for himself or herself. We can learn from the teachings of our ancestors, and their teachings should guide our own religious practice; but ultimately every person’s encounter with Torah is different, because the text unfolds in dialogue with our lives. In this sense Torah is ever evolving. Like the king, we are to carry Torah around us wherever we go, interpreting it against the backdrop of our own experiences and thus keeping God’s teachings alive and vibrant within us.
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