Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Cohen - Horses, Silver and Votes

Posted by RabbiCohen on Aug. 21, 2020  /   0

Welcome to an ancient political convention, minus celebrity emcees and musical guests.

This week’s Torah portion, Shof’tim, fittingly focuses on choosing leadership.  The name Shof’tim means judges.  And the portion opens with the command to appoint officials and magistrates to govern the people “with due justice.” 

“Justice, Justice, you shall pursue,” exclaims the text.

In the ancient world, it is not a given that the ancient Israelites will have a king.  In fact, the Biblical text argues that a king might not be in the people’s best interest.  But, the people were empowered to make this choice. (Side point: the issue of a ruling queen is not discussed.)  And, if the people choose to have a king, there are certain qualifications that must be met.

In this portion, we read that a king must:

  1. Come from within the community.
  2. Not accumulate numerous horses. The Talmud clarifies that a king may have horses for the troops, just not for himself.  The Talmud further expands the text: “It is referring to idle horses, which serve no purpose other than glorifying the king.“ 
  3. Not have many wives, or a more literal translation not have many “women,” lest he become distracted. Rashi puts the maximum number of wives at 18! 
  4. Not amass gold and silver to an excess. The Talmud stipulates that the king may only have enough currency to cover his soldiers’ pay.  A later commentary warns against kings who treat materials gold and silver as “an end in itself and treat these possessions as the measure of their success.” 
  5. Keep a copy or two of the Torah within him on the throne. The actual text says that he should write those copies himself. 

Do these qualifications still hold for leadership today?   Well, certainly not literally.  But, having a leader who knows the people, uses resources and wealth for the common good, and that respects the established societal principles is as relevant today as it was many millennia ago.

Should us moderns envy the leadership of our ancestors?   Probably not.  Consider King Solomon, known as the wisest of the monarchs.  He had 40,000 stalls for horses, 700 wives, 300 concubines and he was so wealthy that silver was described as meaningless during his reign.  In the words of Spanish medievalist Rabbinu Bahya, King Solomon thought that “due to his superior wisdom he would not fall victim to the warnings expressed by the Torah. Alas, he was wrong.” 

After Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel breaks into two.

This week, we were treated to a week of celebrity emcees, musical stars and stirring speeches.  And, there will be more to come.  But, through the glitz, remember the Torah portion Shof’tim.  The criteria are straight forward: A leader of the people, no idle horses, possessions not for glory, respect for the law.   Justice, Justice, you shall pursue. 

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