Shoftim (Judges) – Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Our political leaders would do well to follow the guidelines for the kings of Israel, to ensure their righteousness and the absence of corruption in their kingdom.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the restrictions placed on a king of Israel.
But he shall not have many horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt in order to obtain many horses since G-d has said to you, You shall no longer return that way. Neither shall he take many wives that his heart shall not turn away, neither shall he procure great quantities of silver and gold. And it shall be when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom that he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah* . . . that his heart not be lifted above his brothers and that he not turn aside from the commandments…” (Deuteronomy 17:16-20)
These verses set forth guidelines to be followed by the kings of Israel, to ensure their righteousness and the absence of corruption in their kingdoms. Although, we no longer have kings, our political leaders would do well to follow these rules.
1. The prohibition against owning many horses is linked with the prohibition against returning to Egypt. Key here is the idea that G-d redeemed His people from Egypt – a king of Israel must make sure never to take steps that would lead his people to be enslaved once again.
2. The prohibition against many wives is more a political rather than a sexual issue. In ancient times, kings took many wives as a way of cementing relationships with neighboring kingdoms, as a sort of peace treaty. However, the danger is that these wives will lead the king astray, that the foreign cultures these women bring with them into the kingdom will lead the king astray from G-d’s word and the Jewish way. Again, a word of caution against unhealthy relationships with neighboring nations.
3. The prohibition against too much silver and gold is designed to prevent corruption. If a king does not own too much, he cannot be swayed by money and financial power.
4. And finally, the king is commanded to write his own copy of the Torah and to keep it at his side, to read it and study it and follow the commandments. A king, or any political leader, must be a G-d fearing man and he must avoid arrogance at all costs. If he seeks G-d’s counsel in political decisions, he will ultimately do the right thing.
One of the earliest examples of a king who was not careful fo these prohibitions and was corrupted by them is King Solomon. While Solomon was a righteous and God-fearing man, by the end of his reign he had gone astray.
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel: ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God as was the heart of David his father” (1 Kings 11:1-4)
He took many wives, he built palaces and filled them with silver and gold. His heart was righteous but his many wives and all the trappings that came with them, led him astray.
Today, we are frequently witness to the corruption of leaders, both in Israel and around the world. It pains me when a former (or current) prime minister of Israel is on trial for corruption and bribery. Many point to the unhealthy connection between wealthy political donors and political leaders, whose judgement may then be clouded by the undue influence of their wealthy patrons.
One of the most painful experiences of recent years has been the Disengagement – the expulsion of Jews from their homes in Gush Katif. Many have wondered how Ariel Sharon, the political leader of the settlement movement, could turn against his people in such a terrible way. Was he eager to become the darling of the left, in order to avoid possible criminal indictment on bribery charges? Was he seeking consensus admiration to feed a growing ego? We will never know. But we can certainly say, that he was not a leader who kept the Torah at his side, who understood at the deepest level that the Land of Israel was given to the People of Israel by God and that it was for him to serve the nation as a servant of God.