Originally posted Monday, August 24th, 2015
[Dvar Torah for Parashat Shofetim (Deut. 16:18 = 21:9) given at Temple Israel, Duluth on 8/21/15]
One of the most striking peculiarities of our American way of life is the length of our presidential election campaigns. The next presidential election is still over fourteen months away. And yet the campaigns for the Democratic and Republican nominations have already been in full swing for many months.
Perhaps that’s simply a function of the fact that we elect our President separately from electing our federal legislators. In most democratic countries, voters vote for a political party on the local or national level. Then the leader of the party with the most seats in the legislature forms the government. If they have a president or a hereditary monarch as a separate head of state, then he or she serves a mainly honorific function as a symbol of national unity with no significant political power.
By contrast, here in the United States we elect an individual rather than simply voting for a political party platform. So maybe as a result, we get a longer campaign because it takes more time to judge the character of a person than it takes to judge the merits of a political party platform.
This week’s Torah portion offers some guidance on what we ought to look for in a national leader. As we learn in Parashat Shofetim, in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20:
14 If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me," 15 you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kin. 16 Moreover, he shall not have for himself too many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, "You must not go back that way again." 17 And he shall not have for himself too many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he greatly increase for himself silver and gold to excess.
18 When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. 19 Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Torah as well as these laws. 20 Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Mitzvah to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
We see here a generally apologetic attitude about having a monarch in the first place. It would appear that, in an ideal world, there would be no intermediary between the people and God. Everyone would live in harmony with one another and the world under a shared sense of ethical purpose-- without any need for strong central government as personified by a king.
Of course, that’s not the world we live in. And so we find in our tradition such philosophical gems as Rabbi Chanina’s teaching in Pirke Avot 3:2, הוי מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות--שאלמלא מוראה, איש את ריעהו חיים בלעו. (“Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”)
The Torah’s warning that a national leader not acquire too many horses, or wives, or riches hints at a critique of King Solomon --- who was guilty of all these sins and whose kingdom split in two following his death.
As for us, if we try to put it into contemporary terms, the parasha reminds us of the danger of political corruption. Essentially, we need to seek leaders who are in it out of a sense of service and not out of self-centered craving for power, riches and fame.
But I’ve long been somewhat idealistic about those who run for political office. Whether I agree with a particular candidate’s views or not, whether I consider a particular candidate’s personal and professional qualifications to be adequate or not, I usually take at face value that they are in the race out of an honest desire to be of service to society.
Because, REALLY, especially in the political culture of the United States with its campaign seasons that last for years on end --- who in their right mind could honestly want to go through such exhaustion and endless scrutiny if not in service of one’s ideals? I can’t possibly imagine that being a candidate for office could be fun – no matter what any of the candidates might say publicly. It’s a sacrificial offering of themselves in the hope that they might be given the opportunity to attempt to make society a better place -- by being elected to a leadership role that would enable them to push forward with their political program.
And so, let us be thankful for those who step forward as candidates and offer up our prayers for their physical and emotional health--- both those whom we would vote for and support as well as those whom we would vociferously oppose.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5775/2015