Shoftim – Crony Capitalism and How to Be a King in Israel

Parshat Shoftim- Crony Capitalism and How to Be a King in Israel 

Rabbi Avishai Milner is the Rosh Yeshiva of Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, named in memory of Samuel Pinchas Ehrman 

The King of Israel – mission impossible?
Well, nearly impossible…

One of the main motifs of the Book of Deuteronomy is how the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land.  Their leadership, when they were in the desert, was divine and miraculous, but that leadership would become more natural once they entered the land. They would require a new, more human and more natural type of leadership. One of the forms of leadership discussed in this week’s parsha is kingship. The Torah states the following: “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, one chosen by the Hashem your God.”

The Torah sanctions the idea of a king ruling over the people (and it might even be be commanding us to do; an idea disputed among biblical commentators). Yet the text immediately attaches a series of warnings, limitations and reservations regarding the chosen king. He shall not have many horses. He shall not have many wives. And he shall not amass silver and gold to excess. In the ancient world, a king was a unbridled ruler, who ruled alone with unlimited powers – like a “god incarnate”, and very often, personal interests, family ties and, above all, evil tendencies took precedence over the good of the people. Therefore, the Torah lists and underscores its requirements from a king of Israel, by setting these three restrictions. 

He shall not have many horses – thus limiting his military strength. An unlimited military could result in needless wars and an overreliance on military power.
He shall not have many wives – having too many wives, and treating them as status symbols and sexual objects, marked the beginning of a process of moral depravity, prostitution, and the belittling of human life. 
And he shall not amass silver… Throughout history, people have amassed wealth and pursued a carnal desire to get rich. This led to arrogance, and eventually, to the exploitation of the people, as rulers became out of touch with their subjects. All too often, greed marked the beginning of a decline and a trajectory that ended with the dissolution of the monarchy.

The Torah clearly articulates that we must be wary of the dangerous phenomenon of crony capitalism. The Torah knows that even the most deserving people whose rise to power was driven by ideology and a will to do things to benefit the people may “lose their way”, stop following their moral compass, become accustomed to the pleasures of governance, and mistakenly assume they are allowed to get personal benefits out of the wealth and honor that come along with being in power. They will believe that they were always destined to rule forever, and will come to forget that they serve the people.

The Torah attaches one more restriction to kings – this time, a positive one: Kings are commanded to write a Torah scroll, and read from it, so that “he shall learn to fear God”.

“Serving a holy nation, on holy ground”

Can anyone resist exceeding wealth and power, yet accept the challenge of ruling with responsibility, honesty and loyalty?

Our sages were clearly aware of this formidable challenge. However, they believed that this is not a “mission impossible”. One of the most prominent examples of this is the character and personality of “Rebbe” – who was none other than Rabbi Judah the Prince, one of the greatest scholars and the chief redactor of the Talmud.

Rebbe was very wealthy. He was born into a well-to-do family with many assets, and even earned himself a small fortune from trade, agriculture and close ties with the Roman authorities. He was even a close confidant of Emperor Antoninus himself. The gemara states, in Tractate Gittin (59): “From the days of Moses and until the days of Rabbi Judah the Prince we do not find such greatness in Torah knowledge and such greatness in secular matters, including wealth and high political office, combined in one place, i.e., in a single individual.” The gemara (Tractate Ktubot) tells us that when Rabbi Judah the Prince passed away, he lifted his arms toward Heaven and said “Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that I toiled with my ten fingers in the Torah, and I have not derived any benefit from the world even with my small finger.” This prompts a question: did Rabbi Judah the Prince really gain no personal benefit from worldly pleasures? After all, we know that he carried himself like royalty in the way he dressed, participated in feasts laden with food fit for a king, and more. What, then, did he mean before he died, when he said that he hadn’t derived any benefit from this world?

He wanted to teach us an important lesson. Wealth and leadership don’t come along with great privilege and luxury. On the contrary, leadership and the power associated with it must imbue leaders with a sense of calling and responsibility. Leadership and presidency are a burden, a duty and a calling.

Undoubtedly, Rabbi Judah, who was a prince, lived a life of wealth and wellbeing, but he never lost site of his moral compass. He never forgot that all of the bounty he was fortunate enough to have been given required him to take on even greater responsibility. This type of leadership is always cognizant of its calling.

“Rabbi [Judah the Prince] would honor the wealthy” says the gemara, in Tractate Eruvin, page 76. The text states that the rabbi would say “Anyone who possesses wealth and gives of that [wealth] to the poor – the Torah states that this person [is considered to have] kept all of the commandments”. Wealth and leadership are an opportunity. This is why Rabbi Judah the Prince honored the wealthy. He didn’t do it out of admiration for their wealth or their high office. He did it because he admired what they did for their people and subjects.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon wrote: “A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat; but the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep.” The pshat, or simple reading of this verse, indicates that King Solomon wished to praise the commoners, the laborers who toiled all day, those who worked for their sustenance, supporting their family through honest work, even if their wages were meager. Those people slept well and enjoyed peace of mind. “A laborer’s slumber”. In contrast, the wealthy can’t sleep, because their great wealth and property trouble them with constant worry.

Here, in the Midrash, Rabbi Judah the Prince uses his own approach to voice a very different interpretation of this verse! Rabbi Judah the Prince tells us how he once saw a poor man who fell asleep in the middle of the day because of his idleness, because he didn’t feel any responsibility or commitment toward his work. However, we, the wealthy, claimed Rabbi Judah, deal with the needs of the public, and since we must be so committed to all of the needy, we can’t ever sleep, as our minds are constantly occupied with this heavy responsibility. Leadership and wealth actually deprive us of peace of mind, because of this feeling of being burdened, taking responsibility for others by fulfilling our calling.

From the Midrash to real life

Our Torah is the Torah of life. Without question, these lessons are relevant to our lives today. Occasionally we feel the urge to preach these insights to the clerks at the National Insurance Institute or anyone else providing services at a government ministry, and, of course, the same would apply to our leaders and ministers. However, these lessons seem to be directed primarily at each and every one of us. We are all leaders, in our families, our communities, and workplaces. We all have the capacity, the responsibility and the privelege of being on the giving and helping side, and by doing so, we will deserve to enjoy all of the good things that the Hashem has bestowed upon us.

We pray that we’ll merit leaders worthy of ending their letters the way that Rabbi Kook would ended his igrot: “A servant of a holy nation, on holy ground”. Indeed, Rav Kook’s entire life was a faithful testimony to this phrase.

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