“I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me” Deuteronomy 17:14
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Like a low-budget horror movie, we watch the Jewish people in Deuteronomy beg God to place a king over them. Remember, this is the people who have recently left Egypt, where they suffered as victims of a culture that elevated their leaders to serve as quasi-gods. So we know that once a society starts to equate human beings with powerful divine beings, corruption and tragedy are inevitable.
So it is not surprising that, when God responds in Deuteronomy, allowing the Jewish people to set a king over themselves, there are many restraints placed on the monarchy: limiting wives (ie political alliances), horses (ie military capacity) and riches (ie taxation) — the three areas which are key sources of human power.
Furthermore, the command is never given that the people must obey their king; rather, the parashah’s one positive instruction in relation to the king is that he must sit before the priests (ie spiritual power) and write a copy of the very law restricting his own power!
Sadly, despite these restrictions, the history of the Israelite monarchy is a tragic story, initially because we do not have a king (in the book of Judges) and then because we do have a king (in the book of Kings).
It is almost as if Parashat Shoftim, perfectly situated halfway through the Torah’s story of human leadership, is foreshadowing the Israelite people’s struggle to learn how human beings can wield political power without it corrupting them.
We read Parashat Shoftim following Tishah b’Av, in the lead up to the Yamim Noraim. With our period of teshuvah ahead, there is always an opportunity to make different choices and write the next chapter of our history so it does not end in tragedy or horror.