In this weeks Torah portion, the Torah commands us to appoint a king over
the Jewish nation. Living as we do in a society that values the freedoms of
our democratic tradition, we tend to take a dim view of the concept of
The idea of a ruler invested with unlimited power is anathema to those of us
raised in a social order in which egalitarianism is one of the supreme
values. Indeed, the very mention of absolute monarchy conjures up dark
images of citizens living at the mercy of selfish, totalitarian rulers.
The Torah introduces us to a vastly different type of monarch, one who is
forbidden to engage in self-aggrandizement or excessive acquisitiveness. The
Jewish king "shall not multiply his possession of horses, nor shall he take
too many wives, lest his heart turn astray. Nor shall he hoard silver or
gold, the Torah commands.
The Jewish king is to be a model of humility and moderation, elevating his
people to higher levels of Divine service by his own lofty example, and by
the enforcement power invested in him by the Torah.
The sages saw in the Torahs laws governing Jewish kingship the only workable
blueprint for a utopian society. These laws serve as a primary example of
the Torahs infinite understanding of human psychology. Throughout mankinds
history, various isms regarding the formation of an ideal society have held
sway. None have succeeding in striking a perfect balance between government
authority and personal freedom.
Although we may not appreciate the wisdom behind the Almighty's laws, we are
ultimately best served by surrendering ourselves to His infinite wisdom.
King Shlomo, the wisest of all men, overstepped the limitations the Torah
placed upon a monarch. He rationalized his actions by noting that the Torah
emphasizes that these restrictions are precautionary measures, intended to
protect the king from losing sight of his mission. Having plumbed the depths
of the Torah's wisdom and realized the fruitlessness of materialism and
worldly pursuits, King Shlomo was confident that he had no need for the
safeguards imposed by the Torah. He was certain that the foreign wives he
had converted to Judaism would not lead him astray. He was confident that
the Torah's prohibitions did not apply to him. But no mortal is immune to
error, and as we read in Melachim, "His wives persuaded him to follow alien
The sages tell us that the verse is not to be taken literally. Shlomo
himself never worshipped idols, but he was lax in demanding that his foreign
born wives totally abandon the practices of their childhood. Before long,
his kingdom became contaminated by their alien influences. The message of
this story is that as wise and insightful as we may fancy ourselves to be,
no human being is infallible. No one is smarter than the Almighty. If the
Torah prohibits or discourages a particular behavior or activity, one
violates that prohibition only at his own grave peril.
A monarch once sent his most trusted minister to serve as an ambassador to a
foreign nation. Before the minister left, the king issued a strange command.
He cautioned him never to roll up his shirtsleeves in the presence of the
foreign king. Although the minister was perplexed by this odd request, he
pledged to remain faithful to the king's orders.
At the end of the minister's term, the foreign king threw a farewell party
in his honor. At the party, in the presence of many foreign dignitaries, the
king suddenly announced that all of the subjects of the ambassador's country
are disfigured! They are born with a birthmark, a black stripe down their
arm, he insisted.
The humiliated ambassador vehemently denied the king's absurd allegation.
The king challenged him to lift up his shirt sleeve and prove his claim
before all the assembled. The ambassador recalled his monarch's words and
refused to comply. "Ah ha!" exclaimed the foreign king! "This proves that I
am right; you are afraid to lift up your sleeve and expose your blemish!"
All the denials of the ambassador were to no avail. Finally the king
promised that he would pay one million gold coins to the ambassador's ruler
if he would only lift up his shirtsleeve for a moment, and settle the issue
once and for all. At this point, the humiliated ambassador succumbed. How
could he lose? Surely he had to protect the honor of his native country. He
hastily rolled up his shirtsleeves. The king, appearing to be shocked,
acknowledged that there was no birthmark. He presented the unblemished
ambassador with a million coins to take home to his monarch.
Upon returning home, his king furiously accosted him. "Why did you lift up
your shirtsleeve?" he shouted. "Didn't I order you never to do that?" "But I
earned a million gold coins for your majesty!" protested the minister.
"You fool," shouted the king, "I had bet that king ten million gold coins
that you would be an obedient minister and would never lift your shirt sleeve!"
We may be tempted to question the Divine wisdom when it does not seem to
conform to our own enlightened and progressive minds. Yet, the Torah's
truths are eternal and serve as our guiding light under every circumstance.
Let us learn from King Shlomo's tragic mistake that ultimately precipitated
the decline of his kingdom. We each have a kingdom at our fingertips and it
is our responsibility to maintain it with devotion and care, surrendering
ourselves to the will of the King of Kings. Only then can we ensure a
blissful connection to Him in this world and in the World to Come.
Wishing you a blissful Shabbos!
Rabbi Naftali Reich