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When you come into the Land that G-d gives to you… and you say, "I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me." You shall surely put over yourself a king that G-d shall choose; from among your brothers you shall set a king over yourself… (17:14-15).
Moses continued with a description of the king's lifestyle. There should be no ostentations display of wealth. He should never think himself higher than other people, but always remember that he is accountable to G-d, just as any mortal. That is in sharp contrast to the Egyptians, whose Pharaohs were regarded as divinities in their own right.
But the passage does not include any details of the king's duties. He is not described as the first servant of the state. He is not told to lead his people in battle. He is not encouraged to be a judge over the people. There are no details about how to organize a hierarchy underneath him, and means of drawing up and imposing an effective administrative system.
The emphasis is that the king is required to be a public servant - of G-d. His Torah-revealed laws should be with him and constantly reviewed.
Moses' seemingly unusual approach to the monarch's way of life may be explained in the following way. The king was a figure to be looked up to. His very persona had to be part and parcel of his personality. Regal authority had to be permeated with subservience to the Creator - which would be a product of the Torah 'being with him, so he should read it all the day of his life' (17:19).
The last five chapters of the Book of Judges recount the disasters suffered by the Israelites over the incidents of Micah's graven image (Judges 17-18), and the concubine of Gibeah (Judges 19-21). The latter involved the decimation of the entire tribe of Menasseh. In those days, the text reminds us several times, there was no king in Israel; each person lived as he though fit.
The absence of a king did not just mean there was no authority to forcibly intervene. It meant that there was no suitable person in a high place with a persona strong enough to create an atmosphere that such incidents would never have been able to have taken place. It is the authoritative persona that is the heart of being a king - what he is, rather than what he does. It is to that the king has to aspire.
And in today's terms, he is not there to micro-manage.
This may be illustrated by a true tale of two communities well known to the writer. Both follow the Ashkenazi rite, and both have substantial attendance from sectors with different modes of prayer. One has been without spiritual leader for years. The other has been under a learned rabbi with a persona instantly commanding respect. In the former, there are frequent incidents of discord between the different sectors - hardly conducive to a place of prayer. In the latter, the Rav's mere presence is enough to ensure that appropriate unity and harmony in prayer is observed… and peace reigns.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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