“Justice, justice shall you pursue…” These are the opening words at the start of this week’s sedra, continuing with Moses’ elaboration on the extensive set of laws that the Israelites are to follow, if they are to create a holy and just society.
The Israelites are commanded to appoint judges in each tribe. Their mandate is to “govern the people with due justice, mishpat-tzedek” (Deut: 16.18), not to take bribes or show partiality, and generally to establish a fair system of justice.
In addition to the administration of a judicial system, Shof’tim covers a range of topics, including the legal status of the priests and Levites, the danger of false prophets and idolatry, provisions to create cities of refuge, and laws pertaining to war and battle. Perhaps the most powerful set of these laws concern the appointment of a king.
The verses emphasize that not even a duly appointed king of Israel is above the law. It also stipulates that a king must be mikerev acheikha, literally “from among your brothers or kin”, which can be read as requiring that a king should be knowledgeable of his community and in touch with the population and its needs.
The prohibitions on horses, wives and gold aim to prevent the king from using his position to amass personal wealth and power. The requirement to keep with him “this Teaching,” (the Torah), serves as a reminder that he must comply with the laws and values therein. Trying to live by Torah values will ideally help prevent the sovereign from abusing his power and “acting haughtily toward his fellows.”
According to the Talmud, the king possessed two copies of the Torah – one in his private treasure, and one which he carried with him. Living in the UK, it gave me a sense of pride to see that at the crowning of King Charles, the Bible was delivered to him with the words “We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing the world affords. Here is wisdom; this is the royal law; these are the living oracles of G-d”.
Concern about the proper and improper use of political power echo through the centuries to us today. While democracy has done much to try to shift some of the power from single rulers to larger groups, we would be wise to hear the voice of our Torah in its warning: Leaders must be subject to the law.