A Torah Fit For A King


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:45 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 16:18-21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Havdalah: 8:46 p.m.

“You shall surely appoint over yourselves a king whom the Lord your God will choose” [Deuteronomy 17:15].

Sorry, future King George Alexander Louis: Jewish kings are leaders beyond the accident of birth.

With all fuss over the addition of a new royal, what is it that gives Jewish monarchs an ability to rule? Parshat Shoftim begins and ends with discussions about shoftim, those engaged in administering justice. Can a mortal truly do this?

The verses about the necessity of having a king that are in this week’s portion have long been a source of debate. Is enthroning a king in Israel a positive mitzvah, something preferable, or something only in response to murmuring and complaints emanating from a rejection of the kingship of God, as the prophet Samuel suggests [I Samuel 8:7]?

The debate is explored in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b), and medieval sage Ibn Ezra says the choosing should be “by a prophet or the judgment of the Urim [a means of understanding the will of God used by the High Priest]; the reason is that you should not choose.”

So, what then makes a king, and by extension today, a Jewish leader?

The parsha tells us “and it should come to pass that when he sits on the throne of his kingship he will write for himself this retelling of the Torah in a scroll (sefer) before the priests and the Levites” [Deut. 17:18]. The king should write a Torah; there is something powerful in the act of writing that will inform his life, investing him with the necessary ability to connect with and be imbued with its teachings.

Then, once the king writes his scroll it should “remain with him and he should read from it all the days of his life, that he will learn to fear the Lord his God, to carefully observe all the words of this teaching (Torah)” [Deut. 17:19]. In essence, the king, by writing and reading it constantly, will learn to view his life through its lens.

Writing out the details of one’s life is a way to subtly shape and give form to that life. Jane Taylor McDonnell, in a recent book, says that in the act of writing a memoir “your life will add up to more than the living of it did.” She quotes Philip Roth: “We are all writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to truth.”

If penning a memoir enables the writer to “live twice” according to McConnell, then scribing a Torah creates that secondary life, one brought into being and sharpened through the lens. The writing of the king, not a memoir but a “living twice” through the Torah will create not a fictitious version of his life but one which can come close to truth.

I believe that being forced to write out the text essentially makes the Torah the memoir of the king, to ensure that his life remains within the contours of the words of the law — and of its truth.

A king is fit for leadership inasmuch as he knows what is contained in the Torah, and can see himself as a prism through which the ideals of the Torah must pass. In writing the Torah, and then spending “all the days of his life” [Deut. 17:19] reading it over, the king may become an incarnation of its teaching, so that Torah is a filter through which he views all his actions.

Jeffrey Tigay, in his commentary, suggests that it is to make the king aware that he is not above the law; he must follow the same laws as his subjects.

The king is not the only one enjoined with the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah. In fact, towards the end of Deuteronomy is the proclamation that each Jew should “write yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel” [Deut. 31:19] that this shira (song or poem of Torah) may serve as a witness.

It is not the scroll written in the hand of the king, but the Torah taught to all the people that is of significance to us. The teaching will become something more, a shira which is both a song and poem, a verbal form going beyond mere words into music, a transition out of text and into something beyond, being a witness that accompanies us on our life paths, not a mere teaching. It has value when in the hands and mouths of the many not just the few.

Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis.