by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"When you come to the Land that HaShem your G-d gives you, and inherit it
and settle within it, and you say 'I will set a king upon myself, like all
the nations which are around me,' You shall surely place a king over you,
whom HaShem your G-d will choose; from among your brothers shall you place
a king over you, you cannot place a foreign man over you, who is not your
brother. Only, he should not acquire many horses, and he should not return
the nation to Egypt in order to increase his stable... " [17:14-16]
We are told that the Jews were promised a land of milk and honey. If this
is so, why would a king need to return to Egypt in order to increase the
number of horses in his stable? He could simply import more to Israel and
breed them there, with the more than adequate food available.
My wife's grandfather, Rav Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg z"l, explains: the Torah
is not merely speaking about physical movement, but a shift in ideology.
Indeed, the entire passage discussing the elevation of the king is devoted
to securing the spiritual well-being of the king and his nation.
"You shall surely place a king over you, whom HaShem your G-d will
choose..." -- kingship over Israel is a spiritual matter. G-d, through His
prophets, will choose the appropriate person. "From among your brothers
shall you place a king over you..." -- meaning, your brother in the
Commandments. The king must be a knowledgeable and G-d-fearing Jew.
Why, then, must the king not acquire many horses? This is a matter of a
philosophy, a way of thinking. The Egyptians amassed great armies --
"Pharoah's chariots and Army, He threw into the Sea..." [Exodus 15:4] Their
Pharoahs were mighty rulers, while our kings are commanded not to return in
that direction. Ours is a way of life not built upon physical prowess or
strength. Our kings must not fall prey to that ideology.
The parsha goes further: the king is commanded to write two copies of the
Torah, to keep the Torah with him, and should read from it "all the days of
his life." Thus the king was to acquire and maintain fear of Heaven, and to
observe the Torah and perform its Commandments. A Jewish king recognizes
that in actuality, he is merely a servant of a Higher authority. The Torah
commands that he do all this "so that his heart does not lift itself over
his brothers." The intent is the same: he remains one of the people, and he
is responsible for them and their spiritual well-being. Unlike monarchies
in other nations, the Jewish king must remain part of the people, and care
"...And not turn from the Commandment right or left..." -- Rav Hertzberg
refers to the verse, "Even my hand established the world, and my right hand
forged the Heavens." The King must not turn away from the Commandments he
must observe between himself and G-d -- the right hand, the Heavens -- nor
those between him and his fellow man, to the left, on earth.
In recent days, a Jewish organization in the United States called upon the
Jewish Vice-Presidential candidate to stop talking about religious values.
What could they have been thinking? Even the most avowedly secular person
should be happy that the potential rulers of the nation think that they
must answer to Someone. If we are in exile, it should be some small comfort
to find Jewish values reaching out to the world.
Rulership is an awesome responsibility. Fortunate is the nation whose king
genuinely recognizes that he, too, is ruled by a Higher Authority -- and
evidences this as a genuine part of his daily affairs, rather than merely
paying lip-service to the idea. That ruler will recognize that he is
responsible to the people, and cannot do whatever he wants, whenever he
wants, with whomever he wants.
In recent years, America experienced enough of the latter. We should be
delighted to see candidates, on both sides of the isle, Jewish and
non-Jewish, expressing some of the former. Fear of G-d is good for ethical
development -- not only should we like to see it in a political candidate,
but -- more important -- we should inculcate it within ourselves, as well!