Kings, Governments and Torah: My Allegiance Goes to God

As we culminate reading the Book of Deuteronomy, the most neglected book of the Torah because it is read during the summer, we find the commandment to read the Torah publicly as we do, but only once every 7 years.

Over time this covenantal Torah reading developed into the weekly recitation of Torah in Hebrew and the vernacular that has been the hallmark of Judaism for over 2,000 years. If Catholic worship is popularly associated with incense, and Protestants with hymns, it’s Torah reading that symbolizes worship in the public mind regarding Jews. And it’s Torah reading and its interpretation that has breathed life into the Jewish people and constituted our homeland, the place which sustains us, when we lived scattered among the nations with nothing to bind us together but language, culture and fate.

Torah study perpetuates the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we believe, and the purpose of our lives. “Therefore choose Life, that you and your children shall live,” we will read at Yom Kippur. “Love the Lord your God will all your mind, your strength and your being,” we recite daily. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” the Torah teaches us, which is the reason Beth Torah has contributed generously and uniquely to the annual High Holy Day food drive, feeding through your generosity thousands of people. Perhaps you don’t think consciously of it, but it’s the biblical ideal of justice that you are responding to and fulfilling, that lives engrained in you, when you’ve shlepped food bags to Beth Torah each year like clockwork, never knowing whom you fed nor they knowing you. But the ideal of justice: that you know for sure.

One of those Bible stories, perhaps not one you know so well, is how Saul became king over Israel. I Samuel 8: Let me share it with you:

10 So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”

The Bible is explaining to us that God and Samuel preferred God’s reign alone, but the people demanded a king.

The Torah commands not to appoint a king. Whereas all of the surrounding nations bowed to a king, who ruled their lives, Israel’s idea of kingship was unique. Listen to the Biblical passage in Deut 17:14-20.

(Translation from Sefaria.org)

14 When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me';

15 thou shalt … set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose; one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother.

16 Only he shall not multiply horses to himself …

17 Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.

18 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites.

19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them;

20 that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel. {S}

(Translation from Sefaria.org)

In other words, the Torah forbade choosing and appointing a King for Israel because God was to be sovereign over the Jewish people. But the people demanded a King. So God through the prophet Samuel, told them all the bad things a king would do to them, and they demanded a king anyway.

Here’s the kicker: God said, fine, give them a king, but I’ll still be their sovereign. Unlike any other country, that King must write his own Torah scroll, keep it by his side and live by it.

Many centuries later, Maimonides’ encapsulates this, saying:

"And it shall be, when [the king] sits upon the throne of his kingdom, and he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah"—Deuteronomy 17:18.

A Jewish king is required to write (or acquire) for himself a Torah Scroll—from which he does not part all the days of his reign.

This scroll is in addition to the scroll he already wrote (or acquired) for himself before he ascended the throne .

(Maimonides: The Commandments, trans. Charles Chavel)

And just to keep him honest, the very next commandment in Maimonides’ list is that every person must personally write their own Torah scroll:

Every male is required to acquire a complete Torah Scroll for himself. Better yet if he can write one himself—then it is considered "as if he received it from Sinai"!

One cannot suffice with a scroll that he inherits from his father or ancestors, rather one must write or acquire one oneself.

Now you say, I can’t write for myself my own scroll, but the fact is that many of you have! If you were here for our 25th year celebration, and wrote a letter in our Torah scroll with their scribe, then you fulfilled the mitzvah of writing your own scroll. That’s why we completed a scroll for this congregation: so that everyone of us could fulfill the commandment to write a Torah for ourselves.

AND WHAT IS THE MEANING OF ALL OF THIS?

I used to be asked: if there were a war between the U.S. and Israel, which side would you choose? At one time this was a very hot question, like I was going to get caught in some quandary over allegiance.

My answer was always the same: I choose God.

What does that mean? I have opposed and supported both the governments of the U.S. and Israel, depending on the issues. But that’s political support on principle. On what do I base my convictions? What underlies my commitments? I have allegiance only to God. Like the King of Israel, all of us are commanded to have a Torah scroll. But to what purpose? To look into to guide our actions. It’s a very practical system.

Our allegiance is to the God of Justice, the God of Love, the God of community, the God of Jewish history. No earthly government deserves our allegiance when they choose an unethical path. God is supreme in Jewish lives, and we express that by study of Torah every day, because the world is just that complex.

But, you say, things have evolved since Bible times. How in the world can moderns make decisions based on laws 3,000 years old?

The answer is simple: The Torah this week commands to gather all the people: men, women, children, all occupations, all social positions, for everyone to hear. Those people not only hear, they express themselves. The Jewish people were the first universally literate people in the world. We rely upon education, the discussion of principle, the application of knowledge to the real world. That’s the role of midrash and Jewish law. Opinions go to scholars; and scholars, listening to people’s real world problems and solutions, create new knowledge and new opinions, and that’s Torah too.

This week’s Torah portion sets in motion the bedrock of Judaism: foundational principles repeated over and over, adhered to by the leader of the people, debated constantly, with new applications constantly develop resting on the foundation stones of eternal principles.

“You shall not murder,” but is abortion murder?

“You shall not gossip,” but is sharing necessary information considered gossip?

“You must give tzedakah,” but how much is enough?

“You must honor your father and your mother,” but what about nursing homes and expensive illnesses and poverty?

Old laws, new understandings and solutions.

And most important: the King writes his own Torah scroll, but make sure he knows all the laws and adheres to them; and the King retains a court of advisers, to be certain that God, not the King, sets the principles of justice for all.

As these High Holy Days approach, may we, the recipients of Torah, demand the Torah rule of justice, equally applied, and according to God’s eternal principles, be the standard for our lives and our nation.

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.