How the Hebrew Bible Sought to Humble the King

August 13, 2021 | David Wolpe
About the author: David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of, among other books, Why Be Jewish? and Why Faith Matters. He can be found on Twitter @RabbiWolpe.

In this week’s Torah reading of Shoftim, Deuteronomy raises the possibility that, after taking over the land of Canaan, the Israelites might collectively say, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” and lays out some regulations to which the monarch must adhere. David Wolpe comments on their significance:

At a time of unlimited power for kings, the Torah was far wiser in its skepticism about human power. As our parashah tells us, Israel is (with some reluctance on God’s part) permitted to have a king, but with limitations. Kings may not accumulate too many horses (lest they be tempted to go back to Egypt to enlarge their stock), may not set up a royal harem by marrying too many wives, and may not acquire too much silver and gold.

In other words, the Torah seeks to humble the king, because his position will elevate him. Therefore, [the Talmud adds], the king, while reciting the central Amidah prayer, must remain bowed throughout, [unlike ordinary people, who must only bow at specific points]. And he must both write a Torah scroll and carry it with him and read it throughout his life.

Underlying this deliberate reining-in of those who reign is a philosophical assumption that is basic to the Jewish tradition. Kings in the ancient world acted like Pharaoh in the Torah—capricious, often cruel, and unlimited in the scope given to their appetites and preferences.

[W]hen the Jews are liberated from Egypt it is because they are not to be slaves to a human king, but to the King of Kings—God. For the title of “king” does not apply properly to a single human, but to all humans. Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of quoting the ḥasidic bromide that the greatest sin a human being could commit is to forget that he is a king. Everyone, men, women, children, are all royalty, for we are all made in the image of God.

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