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Parshat Shoftim 2017
For many of Israel’s years of existence as a state, perhaps even now, there has been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction sparked by the almost chaotic performance of the Knesset and government because of widely differing political views. What this country needs, say the disenchanted, is a king or a dictator. Someone to make order out of our chaos. A person like Arik Sharon in his prime, a bulldozer.
This comes to mind in today’s parsha when it speaks of appointing a king over the Israelites. Is this a commandment or a prerogative? Because the Torah is ambiguous, commentators have debated its meaning for centuries. Rabbi Prof. Marc Saperstein points out that the new Jewish Publication Society translation adds the words “If … you decide” and “You shall be free to” set a king above you, while the older JPS translation which we have in our Hertz Chumash views the verse as a commandment.
When the prophet Samuel is informed by the people that they want a king, their explanation is that he’s getting old, his sons are nogoodniks, and they want to be like the other nations, with a king. Remember that the whole idea of a chosen people is to be different from the other nations, not like them! Samuel, of course, takes this as a personal affront, but God assures him: It’s not YOU, Sammy, it’s ME the people are rejecting. Give them what they want!
So Samuel lays out all the things the king will do: he’ll take their sons and some of their agricultural produce as tax. He will take the people’s land when he wants it. Is this what the Torah says or is Samuel simply projecting from what was being done by everyone else? There too the commentators disagree.
One famous commentator, who lived through the Spanish Inquisition period was Don Yitzhak Abravanel. He served as a minister in three different courts – in Portugal, Spain and Naples, and as such was held in very high regard by the Jews of the time (because he had access to the boss’s ear) and by the Christians.
As Rabbi Saperstein points out, Abravanel’s take on kings in general and the necessity of a king at all, is of interest, not only in relation to his own times but to ours as well. Was Don Yitzhak’s views subservient to his masters and his position?
Not at all. After reviewing the conventional wisdom of the time (and of our times as well) that a king is necessary to keep order, he debunks it all. It is better, he says, for a group of good citizens to rule, for a limited time, for the good of the people. He cites the successful Roman era of the consuls as compared to the decline of the Roman Empire during the days of the Caesars. This comes from the pen of a man who served in three courts!
But he goes further. Let’s say you have a king. Can you rebel and overthrow him? NO, says Abravanel. Why? For two reasons. One is that your enthroning of the king is the equivalent of signing a covenant with him, to obey him even if he is a tyrant and a danger to you. And the second reason is that those who overthrow a king are usually worse than the king they depose.
How paradoxical. He is against kings and against rebellion against the king.
This probably reflects Jewish history. We know that in Bratislava and Prague and many other cities, the Jewish quarter (or ghetto) was usually at the foot of the hill on which the castle of the king or ruler stood. Why? Because it was usually the king who protected the Jews. Remove him and the Jews had no big brother to watch over them.
Abravanel’s ideas reverberate today in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. So Qadaffi and Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarek were overthrown. Who and what came in their place? When did some semblance of order return to Egypt? When another strongman came into power. Even the French Revolution, the symbol of freedom which was intended to free the people from a corrupt and hedonistic king, was followed by a reign of terror.
And what about us? Do we need a strongman to rule us? Would we accept him? Would we be willing to put aside our political ideologies long enough to allow one person to dictate what we should do and believe? Those are rhetorical questions.
This leaves us with Abravanel’s other option, a group of outstanding citizens ruling the people for its own good. Our Knesset? Judging by the number of Knesset members who have been found guilty of various crimes, it can be argued that our legislature is not blessed with many paragons of virtue.
Would it help if we tried to implement another of Abravanel’s ideas, which has been echoed by others over the years? His idea that public servants should serve for a limited time only. Two years. Maybe three. This would have the effect of limiting the amount of power (and thus corruption) that any one person could accumulate. Of course, it could also lead to a situation in which the elected might devote even more of their limited time in power to padding their own pockets.
So we won’t necessarily find an answer in history. We can take some comfort in knowing that whatever morass we encounter in politics today existed 600 years ago and 3000 years ago too. It’s good to know that with all the changes we have undergone as individuals and as a species, underneath we remain the same, for the bad and the good. The best we can do is to work on the good as much as we can.