By Joy Scott

In previous Parshiot in the Book of DEUTERONOMY, we learned how God began preparing for the establishment of a new nation in the ‘Promised Land’. Equal portions of the land were allotted, according to the population of each of the tribes. Last week’s Torah Parsha (RE’EH) emphasized the importance of ‘tzedakah’ (charity), whereby the Children of Israel were required to provide a poor individual with whatever would be substantial for his needs. Furthermore, any outstanding liens or loans were to be forgiven at the end of seven years. In effect, with these commandments, God was minimizing the extent of ‘income inequality’; simultaneously maintaining each person’s sense of self-esteem.

In this week’s Parsha (SHOFTIM), the time for Moses’ demise is becoming imminent. The Children of Israel will soon be crossing through hostile nations, as they journey to their destination. Some men over the age of twenty will be exempted from battle including: one who has just built a home for his family; an individual, who has recently married; and, one who is ‘afraid’ and ‘soft-hearted’.

The Parsha begins with Moses speaking: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials in each of your cities; you shall not pervert justice; show favoritism; nor, take a bribe” (1). Later in Parsha (SHOFTIM) Moses tell the Children of Israel: “One witness shall not rise up against any person for any iniquity or sin; only by the mouth of two or three witnesses, will the judge make a ruling” (2). Further, if there is any controversy over the judgment, the alleged perpetrator will appear before the kohanim, who will consider both the ‘spirit’ and the ‘letter’ of the law.

A somewhat aberrant theme emerges when Moses tells the Israelites: “You shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God chooses, from among your brothers” (3). This ‘king’ will be unlike any other monarch. He may not be allowed to own any horses; take more than one wife; nor, acquire any silver or gold for himself. He is commanded to be humble, and read the Torah, in order to revere the Lord, his God.

In the Parsha, this newly created position is assigned no specific roles or duties. Absent any particulars, extreme variations of interpretations emerged, at different time periods; and, in different parts of the world. Maimonides believed that the appointment of a king was an ‘obligation’ (4); Ibn Ezra considered it ‘irrelevant’ (5); Rabbi Isaac Abrevanel thought it was a ‘concession’ (6); and, Rabbi Bachya described it as a ‘punishment’ (7). An ‘anti-monarchial’ political coalition (including John Milton) utilized these comments as a rationale to overthrow all monarchies existing in Western Europe (8).

The clue to the actual role of the king is that the biblical word associated with kings is ‘chokmah’, which is translated to mean ‘wisdom’. ‘Chokmah’ includes worldly wisdom; which is a human universal, rather than a special heritage of Judaism, as is the Torah.

The King described in this week’s Torah Parsha (SHOFTIM) had to spend his life, not only learning Torah; but, also about changes in culture, society, economy, allies, and foes. In this way, laws could be altered, modified, or expanded, depending on unique circumstances.

True leaders must never stop learning. This is how they grow, and teach us to grow with them.


(1) DEUTERONOMY (16:18-19)

(2) DEUTERONOMY (19:15)

(3) DEUTERONOMY (17:15)

(4) Maimonides (1135-1204), Spain

(5) Ibn Ezra (1088-1167), France

(6) Rabbi Abravenel (1437-1508), Lisbon, Portugal

(7) Rabbi Bachya (1255-1340) Zaragoza, Spain

(8) “The Hebrew Republic”, Eric Nelson (Harvard University Press)