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Ah, The Life of a King

  • Ah, The Life of a King

    Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

And it shall be, when he sits on his throne of kingship, that he shall write for himself a copy of this teaching in a book before the levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord [sic] his God, to keep all the words of this teaching and these statutes. (Deuteronomy 17:18–19; translation by Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses [New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004], pp. 966–967)

D'Var Torah

If you want to live like a king, this week’s portion, Shof’tim, tells you how: write a copy of the Torah for yourself, keep it with you all the time, and read in it all the days of your life. On the surface, the meaning of these verses is clear: a king of Israel must be guided by Torah in everything he does, and the scroll must be constantly with him, both as a reminder and for easy reference in the course of his duties.

The idea that a Jewish king should follow Torah may not seem like such a big deal, but it is. Any requirement placed upon a king to follow certain rules and guidelines by definition places restrictions on his power. And if a king has to play by the rules, then it goes without saying that so do the rest of us.

Yet a king is, after all, a king. Why can’t he have someone else write the scroll out for him as long as he promises to read it diligently? In truth, it takes a professional scribe as long as two years to write a Torah scroll, and a king has other things to worry about. Sensible as this rationale may seem on the surface, the duties of ruling a kingdom can wait. Here’s why: when we write something ourselves instead of having someone else do it for us, it becomes ours—and we become more personally invested in it.

This is serious business: Torah is the closest thing we have to God’s blueprint for how to live our lives. And let’s face it, nobody can live our lives for us—we have to do that ourselves. Therefore, the king must write out his own scroll. It may not be as pretty as those written by professional scribes, but it will be his; he will read from the labor of his own hands and remember who he is and who he serves. Without this investment in Torah, our tradition asserts that royal birth alone does not sufficiently qualify one to rule.

Taking this a step farther, Rashi noted that the Hebrew word mishneh, “copy” (as in “he shall write for himself a copy”), can also mean “second.” From this Rashi taught that the king must have already written a first scroll. Furthermore, since the second scroll was specifically for when the king sat on his throne, Rashi concluded that the first one must have been for personal use. Before he could rule from the throne, the king first had to write a Torah and apply it to his personal life. Only then could he write a second copy to define his public office. In other words, we must put our own house in order before we can go on to help others.

In a time when we are taught to compartmentalize our lives, we could learn much from this teaching. Sometimes we act one way with one group of people, another way with a different group, and a third way when we are alone. Sometimes we observe our high-protein low-carb diets punctiliously in public and then gorge ourselves on pretzels and pasta when no one is looking. But what if we lived by the same set of rules everywhere and all the time? Perhaps this is a Jewish definition of integrity—to live not in broken disconnected compartments, but as one whole person all of the time. Perhaps Jewish integrity means consistently applying Jewish values that we learn from Torah in every aspect of our lives.

How exciting it is to think that we can be just as holy as the greatest people described in our sacred texts, just as “majestic” as a Moses, a David, or a Solomon. But how do we get there? Simply put, we just have to choose to live with Jewish integrity—and make no mistake, the choice is ours. We already write a page of “Torah” each and every day through our choices and actions. The question is: what will we choose to write next?

[Please note: The new JPS translation, which appears in the Reform Chumash, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, offers an alternative reading that locates the work of writing out the scroll with the levitical priests instead of the king. However, my reading of the text and the basis of this d’rash is based on a more literal reading of the text, which locates the work with the king himself.]

By the way . . .

[The author chose commentaries to other verses in the parashah that reinforce the same teaching.]

  • “Appoint for yourselves judges and officers . . .” [Deut. 16:18]. This is [not only a commandment, but] also a promise to the Jew, saying: “You will be able to make yourself into your own judge and officer.” Thus it says that “a person is led in whatever direction he seeks to go.” Some want to seek the truth. Others find their minds not whole enough and long to be forced along the way. In this, too, a person can find help; these are the [inner] “judges and officers” [Sefat Emet 5:72]. (Arthur Green, trans., The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger  [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998], p. 311)
  • “Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .” (Deut. 16:20). With justice one must pursue justice. That is, one who pursues after justice must do so justly, not with falsehood.  (R. Bunim of Pshyska, quoted in Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg, ed., Itturei Torah, vol. 6 [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1995], p. 110d; translation from the Hebrew by Gary Pokras)
  • “You must be wholehearted with the Eternal your God . . .” (Deut. 18:13). From the Torah and all of the Prophets there are only two commandments that must be performed “with the Eternal your God.” In terms of “wholeheartedness” the text only says, “You must be wholehearted with the Eternal your God.” Similarly, regarding the value of humility, the prophet says, “Walk humbly with your God.” The reason is that in both of these commandments one can easily fool others; one can pretend to be pure while his heart is filled with cunning and wicked schemes. Similarly it is taught that humility can be faked . . . [therefore] wholeheartedness and humility must be performed with God, who examines our hearts for health or pride [and cannot be fooled]. (R. Pinchas of Koretz, quoted in Itturei Torah, ibid.,  p. 122c; translation from the Hebrew by Gary Pokras)

Your Guide

  1. The Sefat Emet teaches that we are led by our choices. Why do you think we so often choose to do things we know we will probably regret later? 
  2. R. Bunim turns the saying “The end justifies the means” on its head by suggesting that the means may in fact determine the end. Do you think that is true? Why or why not? Can you imagine any exceptions?
  3. R. Pinchas asserts that, like the kings of Israel, we should live with the same rules internally as externally. Why do you think that humility and wholeheartedness in particular are necessary if we are to live to our fullest (Jewish) potential? What would happen if we were arrogant or self-serving on the inside but kept it hidden from everyone?
Reference Materials: 

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164