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God and Kings

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Each passage in the parashah can be understood on many different levels. We are told that when our forefathers came to the Land of Israel, they were to "set a king over [themselves]."[1] But everything written in the Torah is eternal, for all generations, so how are we to understand this commandment? In our contemporary world, how can we appoint a king to reign over us? We, the Jewish people, have only One King - the Almighty God. During the High Holy Days our Shacharis commences with the awesome word HAMELECH - THE KING. Our Sages would actually tremble when the cantor pronounced those awesome words declaring that God is our King Who reigns over us.

Whether we are in the privacy of our homes, in the workplace, or on vacation, we must always remember to set the King - God - over us. "Shivisi Hashem l'negdi samid - I have set Hashem before me always,"[2] is the teaching of King David.

Strangely enough, however, when the people settled in the Land of Israel and petitioned Samuel, the prophet, to appoint a king for them, Samuel reacted with anger. It was not their request that upset Samuel, but rather, the manner in which it was made. "Appoint for us a king to judge us, like all the nations,"[3] the people said. The problem was that they meant it literally; they wanted to imitate their heathen neighbors. It was not the words that mattered. Their intention should have been, "Give us a king who will inspire us to greater commitment to God, who will lead us in our Torah life."

Once again, herein is a lesson for all of us. Our aim should never be to emulate the nations among whom we reside, but to walk on our unique path, to live by the light that was given to us at Sinai - it is to this end that we must strive, so that all that we acquire will be committed to the higher service of God.


God gave three commandments that pertain specifically to kings. He advanced reasons for these disciplines, which is most unusual, for the Torah seldom puts forth reasons for observance. The very fact that God commanded is reason enough. This is not simply a matter of faith. There are other considerations as well: Once a reason is given for the observance of the mitzvah, the commandment is at risk, for the temptation to tamper with and second-guess the command is too difficult for man to resist. And indeed that was the undoing of the wisest man, King Solomon. For example, God prohibited kings from having too many wives and the reason He gave was "so that his heart not turn astray."[4] Solomon rationalized that he could handle it, that he would not allow anyone to corrupt him. In his old age, however, his many wives brought tragedy upon his kingdom. Now, if this was the case with King Solomon, who had the distinction of being the wisest man on earth, what can we anticipate if we try to outsmart the Torah?

All this teaches us that we should never be overly confident; that we should never believe that the disciplines of the Torah are not applicable to us, that we can handle the many temptations of our 21st-century society and not succumb. It is easy to lose our way, but very difficult and painful to find our way back. If ever this message was relevant, it is today. Our world is in chaos and we stand humbled before our Creator. Let us not try to be smarter than His Torah.


The Torah does not abide arrogance. "There is no room for Me in the arrogant heart," says God. Arrogance, however, is a monarch's occupational hazard and continues to be the undoing of many of us in every generation, even today. To immunize himself from the disease, the king was commanded to write two Torah scrolls,[5] one of which had to be carried at all times on his right arm, and the other kept in his treasury. Those Torah scrolls were there to remind him that as august as his position might be, and as much wealth as he might have in his treasury, he is bound by the Torah's commandments, for above all, he is a servant of God.

In our own generation, in which it is easy to become caught up in success and in all the enticements of our culture, we must remember that, even as the Torah enabled the king of Israel to fulfill his mission with humility, so we too, by remaining focused on the Torah, can fulfill our purpose, and not become drunk with arrogance. We must learn from this law of the king to keep the Torah forever in our sight so that we never forget our higher calling, the true purpose of our lives, and the source of our success.


At the end of our parashah, we find the most perplexing commandment. If a corpse is found abandoned in the field, the elders of the city closest to where the body was found must go forth and declare, "Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see."[6]

At first glance, this declaration of the sages seems absurd. Can anyone imagine that the elders murdered this man? But the Torah is teaching us a profound, timeless lesson. The leaders are responsible. To be a leader in Israel is not a matter of honor or prestige. Rather, it is an awesome charge which holds the leader accountable for everything that occurs on his watch. Similarly, parents are responsible for their children, teachers for their students, and we are all responsible for one another. Thus, if a man is found dead and abandoned, and no one had offered him food, shelter, or an escort to see him on his way, then something was drastically wrong in that community. The leaders must scrutinize themselves, their community, and their society to determine whether they have been guilty of neglect.

Now, if this be the case when a man's physical life is at risk, how much more does it hold true when his spiritual life is on the line? In our contemporary world, multitudes of our people are disappearing through assimilation, but what are we doing about it? How many of us can truly testify that we offered them the spiritual nourishment and shelter of our Torah?

Yes, we are all our brothers' keepers. Yes, we are all responsible for one another.


1. Deuteronomy 17:15.
2. Psalms 16:8.
3. I Samuel 8:5.
4. Deuteronomy 17:17.
5. Ibid. 17:18.
6. Ibid. 21:1-7.

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