This week’s portion is Parasha Shoftim (judges), which begins with a description of various community officers, like judges, whom the Children of Israel will appoint when they enter the Land. Very impressive, to have a job description written by God.
But God understood that authority needed limits. When America’s Founding Fathers (surely after consulting with the Founding Mothers) wrote the Constitution, they included checks and balances, by which each of the three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – would impose limits on each other so that no branch became too powerful. The limits God put on the officers were to make sure their power was used within the Jewish constitution, the Torah.
In this same vein, the portion teaches that while the leading judges acting together as the Great Sanhedrin were empowered to interpret what the Torah meant, the most learned of the sages was not permitted to hand down a ruling that contradicted the Great Sanhedrin.
Even the king would have limits on what he could do. The Torah tells us that the people will set over themselves a king whom God shall choose. But there were limitations. The king had to be Jewish. He could not have too many horses, or too many wives, or too much gold and silver.
The Torah’s explanation of two of these prohibitions gives us a clue to the deeper meaning of why they are prohibited.
- The limitation on not having too many horses was to keep the nation from returning to Egypt. This meant not only that Israel should avoid traveling to Egypt to buy horses; Egypt was the land where the people lived in a low spiritual state, and God wanted their spiritual lives to be elevated.
- The prohibition against too many wives was to keep the king’s heart from turning astray. God knew that, when the kings married many wives, some of them would be idol-worshippers and influence the king and the people to worship idols.
- So, too, an excess of gold and silver would turn the king away from his job of serving the people through the words of the Torah, and become diverted to amassing riches.
The final rule was that the king had to write two copies of the Torah, one to be kept in his treasury and one to accompany him at all times. With the Torah at his side, the king would attend to his true purpose, to “observe all the words of this Torah and these decrees, to perform them, so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that he will prolong years over his kingdom, he and his sons amid Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:19)
The king is given wealth and status, so that he could carry out the Torah.
What powers and gifts have you been given, and how do you use them?