Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Shopping List for a King: Parashat Shoftim

 If you are going to be a king, what do you need to buy?  It is a hard job, and you'll need all the right supplies.  This week's Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, provides some guidance for what you will need to acquire, and what you will need to avoid if you want to be a successful leader.  If you are familiar with Bible stories, some of the advice may surprise you.

16. Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself, so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for the Lord said to you, "You shall not return that way any more."
טז. רַק לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא יָשִׁיב אֶת הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַיהֹוָה אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עוֹד:
17. And he shall not take many wives for himself, and his heart must not turn away, and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself.
יז. וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ נָשִׁים וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבוֹ וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ מְאֹד:
18. And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll from [that Torah which is] before the Levitic kohanim.
יח. וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם:
19. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them,
יט. וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשׂתָם:
20. so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel.
כ. לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו וּלְבִלְתִּי סוּר מִן הַמִּצְוָה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל מַמְלַכְתּוֹ הוּא וּבָנָיו בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל:

So, to review, in order to be a successful leader, you are going to want to get yourself two Torahs, and scale back on the horses, the precious metals, and the women.  We know that foreign women can lead a king away from Torah (as happened with Solomon), but why is the Torah so concerned with horses, gold, and silver?

Rashi writes this about horses:

he may not acquire many horses for himself: But, only what he needs for his chariots, “so that he will not cause the people to return to Egypt” [to purchase the horses], because horses come from there, as it is said of Solomon (I Kings 10: 29), “And a chariot that went up and left Egypt sold for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for one hundred fifty.” - [San. 21b]
לא ירבה לו סוסים: אלא כדי מרכבתו, שלא ישיב את העם מצרימה, שהסוסים באים משם. כמה שנאמר בשלמה, ותעלה ותצא מרכבה ממצרים בשש מאות כסף וסוס בחמשים ומאה (מלכים א' י כט):

There is a clear connection between a certain type of wealth and Egypt.  I think that it is worth exploring this connection further, especially if we think of Egypt's spiritual geography instead of its physical one.  In Hebrew, Egypt is known as Mitzrayim, the root of which is tzarim which means "trouble" or "narrow places."  While we cannot verify the historical veracity of our sojourn in a literal Egypt, we can testify to our struggles in narrow places, and God's ultimate redemption of our people.

Egypt is a place of slavery. Egyptian society puts material wealth before human dignity.   Egyptian faith places the adoration of idols before the worship of The Divine. Egypt is the type of place that views human life as a means to an end, and human suffering as an acceptable currency in the quest for material gain.  A righteous king must avoid Egypt at all costs; he cannot be this callous, and cannot possess these values.

It is for this reason that we learn in our Torah portion that a king should possess two Torahs: one that should remain in his treasury, and another that should always be upon his tongue.  He should endeavor to possess Torah's wisdom completely, and it should be his lodestar at all times.  Once he begins to pursue material and earthly wealth as his primary priority, he will lead the people back to Egypt, even if they never take a physical step toward the country.  He will lead them, and himself, to narrow and dehumanizing places, degrading the power invested in him by his Creator and his people.

We are now entering Elul, the month of reflection before our ultimate moral accounting.  What are you pursuing, and trying your best to acquire?  What model are you presenting to those who follow you?  What is on your shopping list, and what needs to be given away in order to purify your soul and break away from Egypt?  What are you doing to affirm redemption, and journey toward it at all times? 

May we focus this week on shedding that which clouds our judgement and integrity and turn toward Torah for the light of leadership.

Chodesh Elul Tov!