Parshas Shoftim: Jewish Leaders


Moshe Ben-Chaim



“When you [the Jewish nation] come to the land which Hashem your God gives you, and you inherit it and dwell in it, and you say, ‘I will place upon myself a king as all the nations roundabout’.  Certainly place upon yourself a king whom Hashem your God selects from among your brothers; place [him] as king. You are not enabled to place upon yourself a foreigner who is not your brother.”(Deut. 17:14,15)


We are warned that when selecting a king “as all other nations roundabout”, we must throne only he whom God selects via prophecy. We are not allowed to select a king of our own choice. We must inquire of the prophet or the priest who have communication with God. They will select whomever God determines to be king. This first lesson regarding Jewish leaders is that we must follow God’s Torah, not our own agenda. God articulates a phrase that “we” will state: “I will place upon myself a king as all the nations roundabout”.

God clearly teaches that the Jew is concerned to follow the ways of “all the other nations”. Is the motive to have a king “as all other nations” different than simply wishing to “have a king”? It appears they are one and the same. Meaning, the desire to set up a king occurs in the national mindset “only” when we see “all the other nations roundabout” establishing kings. In this case, the institution of a king is not a Torah mandate, but a concession, or permission to man: Torah life does not demand that a king exist. This is the view of both Rav Saadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra. Both Rabbis termed kings a “rishuss”: an “optional” institution. Maimonides is of the opinion that a king is a positive mitzvah, something inherently necessary. Let us better understand Rav Saadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra.


The verses indicate that God selects for us a king, but only once we initiate the request. It is not a preferred situation. Furthermore, our request is to duplicate the other nations. Perhaps this expresses the danger: we desire a king not to secure a Torah lifestyle, but simply to be “as other nations”. But if so, why doesn’t God simply prohibit kings outright? We must conclude that a king can be a worthwhile institution, provided it adheres to guidelines that restrict the king from arrogance, or misleading the nation. He is limited in his reign, wealth, wives, and must also carry the Torah in all places. These restrictions add to the force of the argument that a king is not preferred. He is only allowed if safeguards are in place. And safeguards apply only to matters that contain risks. However, what is most restricting is the king’s very designation: he is king only by God’s word. What does this accomplish?

God’s very selection of the king indelibly associates a king’s identity with God. God obscures the king, at his very inception, in his designation, and throughout his reign.

First, the king recognizes that God gave him the throne. His own identity as king is not based on ‘his’ merit, but on God’s wisdom, which no man fathoms. And he only retains the throne as long as he upholds God’s Torah, as seen in Samuel’s dethroning of Saul upon his sin. Second, the nation will recognize this man as “appointed by God”, so any hero worship is mitigated. Third, the king is always seen carrying God’s Torah. Thereby, the king’s fame and reputation is overcome with an ever-present recognition of God.


Perhaps this is why a king is not a command according to these two Sages, and not an institution preferred by God. The people should seek to attach themselves ‘directly’ to God, without a human leader who obscures our focus on Him. The Jews sinned with the Gold Calf to replace the “man” Moses, of whom they had no idea what happened…when they erroneously miscounted the day of his descent. The Jews were too attached to the “man” Moses. God insures we learn their error, by an exact quote of their word “man” in the verses.

The other nations may have very well established kings, since their orientation is not towards God, who they know not. The other nations follow infantile and instinctual drives, as we read again in this week’s Parsha, “When you come into the land that Hashem your God gives you do not learn to do as the abominations of those nations”. (Deut. 18:9) Their kings are attempts to sustain the infantile relationship to parents: the king leader is a displaced image of a parent. But man need not be subservient to his equal. This is exactly what God said in response to the Hebrew salve, “You are My servants, and not servants to servants”.

Most of the nations’ prohibited practices are attempts to learn about the future. These nations possess no Torah that weans man away from the infantile dependency on parents, towards complete confidence in God. So firmly attached to the memory of their parent are the other nations, that they create gods in the form of humans who undoubtedly are their parents in some manner. As adults, these peoples forged gods of steel and carved of wood, as a futile path back to the safety of childhood, when parental figures secured their lives and futures. But now, as adults without parents, they perceived a frightening void, and attempt to fill it with stone gods, and human leaders. They cannot face life without security, so they fabricate ways to comfort themselves…they established kings. They follow fortunetellers, horoscopists, enchanters, palm readers and the like…other forms of “leaders”, just like kings. And today, sadly, many Jews imitate these practices with amulets, also visiting Kabbalistic liars and crooks who parade as if prophets, just to rob $100 from insecure Jews. But God sees all and metes out punishments to those stirring up false hopes in the ignorant masses, as well as for their idolatrous sins.


It is interesting that in both Torah cases in today’s Parsha – seeking a king, and the warnings of following the nations’ abominations – God introduces both with almost identical wording: “When you come to the land…”  Perhaps this comparison is intended to equate both as matters God does not prefer, and that do not address Torah needs, but only human insecurities: we wish to be as the other nations. When we “come to the land” is when we seek to copy our neighbors with kings and abominable practices. Coming to the land has dangers.

Entering the land brought with it the exposure to other nations who follow leaders, when we are to follow God. It also exposed us to abominations. A king is not necessary, when we have the Sages and Rabbis who can teach us the dangers of those abominations, and God’s will for our daily lives. And following the Rabbis is not an option: God commands us to seek out those with wisdom to guide our Torah lives. (Deut. 17:11) In contrast, a king is not to serve this role. Therefore, the king is not essential to the proper life of the Jew, or of the nation. Perhaps, yet, since a king can be used for good, it cannot be a prohibited institution. Provided the safeguards are followed, a king can in fact cause the people to reach God through this alternate route of a leader, closely associated with God. This might answer another problem…


We are puzzled: if God selects our kings (as he must be a superior choice than our own selection) how then can God’s “chosen” king fail? And he must have this option to fail, since God says, “lest his heart grow haughty from his brothers and lest he veer from the commands”. This means that the commands governing the king’s reign are to deter him from falling prey to egotistical emotions that all leaders face…even those selected by God. While it is true that God selects the best option for a king, the very institution is inherently flawed with the elevation of a human being’s ego. These are god’s words: “Lest his heart grow arrogant over his brothers”.


So according to Rav Saadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra, kings are an optional institution. What is a preferred state of affairs is that a Jew inquires from the Rabbis concerning how to live his life.


Even when going to war, the king is not the primary figure. It is the Priest who addresses the people and reminds them of the Torah philosophies, and the absolute security they must have in God who can do all: “And when you draw near to war, the priest shall approach and speak to the people. And he shall say, ‘Listen Israel, today you draw close to war on your enemies; let not your hearts be faint, do not fear and do not panic and do not be broken before them. For Hashem your God goes with you, to battle for you with your enemies, to save you’.” (Deut. 20:2-4)


The true leader is the priest: the family who God designated to serve Him in His Temple, to study and disseminate Torah to all Jews. A Jewish leaders’ role is to understand God’s will for Israel based on Torah study, to teach it, and to uphold it in all of his decisions. His role is not to agree with the masses to retain his office. His role is not to violate God’s Torah principles to gain foreign dollars, or appease others with deadly decisions that allow terrorist to live close by, or to be freed from prisons. They should not be imprisoned in the first place, but executed as all nations who wisely execute terrorists.

It is the deviation from God’s Torah morality that has Israel in such a bind today. Those who deny God’s knowledge and laws addressing terrorists, now run Israel. It is a contradiction: Israel’s leaders claim Israel based on the Torah’s promise, but then close His holy book and read no further. But we have God’s promise if we follow His Torah, “For Hashem your God goes with you, to battle for you with your enemies, to save you.” This appears to be only the case when we accept “Hashem as our God”. So Israel, do so, and earn God’s promise.


It is historically proven that God was not with Jewish leaders who violated his word. So it is imperative that those in Israel, who have a voice, use it now to insure the nation is run based on God’s Torah morality, not the lethal politics that keeps killing us. History and reason demand this step be made. History and reason prove how we succeeded when we had true Jewish leaders like Moses, Joshua, and Kings David and Solomon. Our leaders have deviate from God. And we need God, more than the support of other nations.