Shoftim 5779. Can Our Leaders be Humble?
It is election season again. Today, we are frequently disappointed by the moral calibre of world leaders, and at times, we have concerns regarding their integrity. (I won’t name names, but you can probably thing of a leader or two.) So, when the Torah legislates the notion of a king in this week’s parasha, it certainly gives us pause to think about how the biblical conception of a political leader might differ from our own.
I want to focus upon one detail regarding the Torah’s depiction of the king, and that is something that relates to the leader’s ego, their self-image. Repeatedly the Torah refers to the king as “a brother.” Seemingly, there is no blue blood running in his veins. The king is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
"Set a king over yourself, one of your brothers; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not of your brothers. … He shall have a copy of the Torah scroll … read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Torah laws. So that he will not raise his heart over his brothers …a nor deviate from the Torah...” (Deut 17:14-20)
This is of course surprising. One bows to a king. The very notion of sovereign power places the ruler on a pedestal. And yet, over and over, the sovereign is referred to as a brother! Is this practicable? Can a king be “one of the people?”
APPROACH 1. NOT A DIVINE BEING
“In the political theology typical of the great land powers surrounding ancient Israel, the king was either a God, an incarnation of a God, or a semi-mythic human king who was elected by the gods to serve as a necessary mediator between the divine order and the human world. …the deification of kingship and general veneration of political authority meant that an unblinking look into the moral trespasses, ambiguous virtues, and personal shortcomings of monarchs and emperors was exceedingly rare…” (The Beginning of Politics, Moshe Halbertal)
So, why does the Torah insist that the king is just like everyone else? In this perspective, we are not saying that the king lacks an elevated status. The Torah is stating, however, that a king is merely a political employee, not a cosmic force. The king is not God, he is, like ourselves, a human being, with weaknesses for money, women, horses and pride.
APPROACH 2. POWER CORRUPTS
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men..." So said Lord Acton.
The issue is that some form of ego must be at the heart of leadership, especially modern political leadership in which a person stands for election. Here there is a deep paradox. A leader needs the confidence to lead, the ambition and drive to persevere in the extreme environment of the modern election process. The leader should have a deep sense of mission, but without high self-esteem, without being convinced that he or she has the answers, the person will not rise to leadership. But where is the line between healthy and unhealthy ego? When does the confidence to lead become self-absorption? How do we ensure that power does not corrupt?
“That he will not raise his heart above his brothers: to absolve himself of mitzvot” (Ibn Ezra)
Ibn Ezra addresses the legal, not the affective or the psychological. Maybe Ibn Ezra thinks it is impossible for the king to have a certain arrogance or pride, but he must know that he is not above the law.
“That he will not raise his heart above his brothers. That is why he is instructed not to exceed in his silver and gold” (Bechor Shor)
Rav Yosef Bechor Shor wants a Jewish king to live in a more modest manner than the kings of surrounding cultures. When one sees the living rooms of Israel’s Prime Ministers such as Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, we witness a person who was driven by service to the nation rather than self-interest.
That he will not raise his heart: The reading of the Torah is a useful safeguard against arrogance. (Netziv)
That he will not raise his heart: It is here specifically that the Torah alludes to the prohibition of pridefulness. (Ramban)
Precisely because the king has a propensity to aggrandize himself and to become lured by the trappings of power, public office becomes the are in which the leader must remember that he is there to serve the nation, and he is not at the centre.
May we be worthy of leaders who exemplify these ideas.
Is this practicable in a modern context? I will allow you to discuss this around the Shabbat Table!