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Parashat Shoftim

August 24, 2012

By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

Within the last few weeks I, and most likely many of you, have been barraged with email messages asking for donations to the presidential campaign. Initially I read the messages with a skeptical eye, planning to contribute a minimal amount at some future date. However, after viewing notes of alarm in the most recent subject lines, I began to panic. Can my small contribution possibly help any candidate to win against the behemoth fundraising machines in which individuals are contributing tens of millions of dollars, I wondered.

Nonetheless, despite my better instincts and my loathing for the way in which campaigns are financed in the United States, believing that the government should pay for them to create an even playing field for all potential candidates, not just those connected to wealth, I broke down and made a modest donation. After all what if my candidate loses because I was cheap? You may be wondering, why did I do this, since I am against it in principle? I struggled, and then eventually decided, if can God can make concessions, as we will see soon, in accommodating human desire, so can I.

In Shoftim, this week’s parashah, Moses instructs the people to appoint judges and to pursue justice vigilantly. A few verses later we read: “‘If after you have entered the land… you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself…” (Deut. 17: 14-15). This is actually quite extraordinary. For here God perceives the human need for a leader, another human being with authority to govern the people. This is not dissimilar from the One’s recognition of humankind’s desire to eat meat. In both cases the Torah acknowledges human need and sets limits – through law – to circumscribe potentially indulgent and self-destructive behavior. In the case of meat consumption, we get the laws of kashrut.

As far as the king is concerned, the text says nothing of his rights nor his job description. However, it clearly curtails his power. “He shall not keep many horses…he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray, nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess” (Deut. 17:16-17). These strictures were established to prevent the Israelite king from becoming like the sovereigns of the surrounding nations, specifically Egypt, where the king was believed to be the God. The Talmud points to the need for such strictures. “We have been taught that Rabbi Eliezer said: The elders of the generation made a proper request when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us’ [1 Sam. 8:6]. But the ignorant in Israel spoiled it by adding, “That we also may be like all the nations…” [1Sam 8:20] (Sanhedrin 20b).

It is interesting to note that the king’s only positive responsibility involves the Torah, which he is to copy, study and observe. “Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left…” (Deut. 17:18-20). Where will we find such a king, much less an elected president of the United States? Surely not in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), where despite God’s admonitions, the few Israelite kings, who were appointed by God, deviate egregiously.

How thrilling, however, to find an exemplar from our own ancient, post-biblical, history: “When a king and a bride meet, the bride must make way in deference to the king. Nevertheless King Agrippa made way for the bride, and the sages commended him. When they asked him, ‘What made you do so?’ he replied, ‘I wear a crown every day; let her wear her crown for a brief hour'” (Semahot 11).

May the next President of the United States manifest the humility and wisdom that King Agrippa demonstrated. And let us hope that we, as well educated citizens are able to discern and elect the individual for whom the constitution is as meaningful and true a document as the Torah was for Agrippa, according to the following account of Josephus.

At the conclusion of the first day of Sukkot, the Torah scroll was handed to King Agrippa, who read it while standing erect. The sages praised him for this. When he read Deuteronomy 17:15 “You may not put a foreigner over you as king,” his eyes ran with tears, but they said to him, “Don’t fear, Agrippa, you are our brother, you are our brother!” (Eliezer Ebner, History of the Jewish People, The Second Temple Era, Mesorah Publications Ltd. 1982, p. 155).

This is a remarkable vignette of a leader of our people who was only half Jewish. Let us pray that the next President of the United States knows this story about Agrippa and that he views himself as the brother – not only for the Jews and Israelis – but for peoples around the world who are also our brothers and sisters.


Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min, BCC is the part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, MA. She teaches at the JCC in Manhattan and works independently with private students for conversion, B’nai Mitzvah and other life cycle events.