Judaism: Shoftim: All the King's Horses
Rabbi Avraham GordinerThe writer is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the New York Bar.
"You shall surely appoint upon yourself a Melech (King), whom Hashem your God shall choose... However, the Melech may not acquire extra horses, such that he not cause the nation to return to Egypt in order to amass large quantities of horses, for Hashem has warned you not to dwell in Egypt again. And the Melech shall not have a multitude of wives, so that his heart not be distracted. And he may not amass excessive amounts of silver and gold."
"And it shall be that when he assumes the throne, he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah from before the Kohanim and Levi'im. And the Sefer Torah shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life, in order that he learn to fear Hashem his God and safeguard all the words of this Torah and its laws, so that he observe them; such that he not become haughty and stray from the mitzvos, in order that he will have an enduring monarchy, he and his progeny, in the midst of Israel.” (Devarim 17:15-20)
The Torah’s sequencing of the mitzvos of the Melech (king) is quite perplexing, as the prohibition to acquire extra horses is presented first, followed by the prohibition to have a multitude of wives, followed by the prohibition to amass excessive amounts of silver and gold, followed by the command to write a Sefer Torah so that the Melech should learn from it, fear Hashem and safeguard and observe the mitzvos.
This last command would seem to be more fundamental and essential to the Melech’s general role, whereas the prohibitions of having an excessive number of horses, a multitude of wives, and amassing silver and gold are preventative and somewhat ancillary to the Melech’s leadership persona and his religious identity.
In fact, the Rambam presents the requirement for the Melech to write a Sefer Torah and keep it with him before he presents the prohibitions of the Melech relating to horses, wives, silver and gold. Furthermore, the Rambam describes how the Melech should interact with the nation prior to presenting any of the above mitzvos. (Hil. Melachim 2:6, 3:1-2)
Why, then, does the Torah first present the prohibitions relating to horses, wives, silver and gold, and only then present the requirement for the Melech to write a Sefer Torah and keep it with him? It would appear that the former group of mitzvos, which are preventative and seemingly ancillary, are placed before the mitzvos that are more essential to the Melech’s role.
The impact of the Melech upon the nation is inestimable; his tasks of ruling over, guiding and tending to the people, coupled with his expansive extralegal powers, render his every word and decision of seismic importance. Likewise, the Melech's mandate to always maintain an unwavering concentration on Torah and to reflect and embody the heart of the nation at all times injects a sense of immense gravity and intensity into his position. (V. Rambam ibid. h. 5-6.)
It is difficult to appreciate the extreme significance of the Melech’s role and tasks without being provided a context that indicates the required focus and the inherent sensitivity of all that the Melech does. It is precisely for this reason that the Torah first presents the prohibitions against the Melech relating to horses, wives, silver and gold, before addressing the details of his role, for these prohibitions elucidate the intense focus that the Melech must maintain and the sensitivity in carrying forth his role.
For example, the Ramban (on Devarim 17:16) explains that an excessive interest in horses on the part of the Melech can result in the establishment of Jewish-run horse businesses based in Egypt in order to provide for the Melech’s equestrian desires. In other words, the Melech’s indulgent interest in horses, due to his supreme role as Melech, can end up facilitating mass transgression of the prohibition of dwelling in Egypt.
This is illustrative of the grand and profound impact of the Melech and the unintended consequences should he not exercise extreme care with his decisions and interests.
Likewise, the Rambam writes: “The Melech is not permitted to drink in an intoxicating manner…Rather, he is to be immersed in Torah and the needs of Israel day and night…He likewise is not to be very involved with women, as the Torah was particular regarding the Melech’s heart being distracted…for his heart is the heart of the entire Congregation of Israel, and for this reason did the Torah require that he be attached to the Torah more than the rest of the nation.” (Hil. Melachim 3:5-6)
The prohibitions of the Melech pursuing the material and the earthly are hence not at all ancillary; rather, they frame the Melech’s intense focus and the profound ramifications of his actions, and are therefore presented by the Torah as an introduction to the persona of the Melech and all that the Melech represents.
This is why the prohibitions of the Melech relating to horses, wives, silver and gold are specifically presented before the requirement for the Melech to write a Sefer Torah and keep it with him, as these prohibitions introduce and frame the import of the Melech's larger role. It is very likely for this same reason that the Rambam dedicates the second perek (chapter) of Hilchos Melachim (Laws of Kings) to detail the immense honor that must be accorded the Melech – before the Rambam presents the halakhot of the Melech’s daily conduct – as only with an appreciation of the gravity of the Melech’s persona can one properly understand the impact of his role and the necessary intensity of his focus.
Let’s conclude with two more quotes from the Rambam in Hilkhot Melachim, which are very revealing as to the Torah’s concept of Jewish monarchy, and which can inspire us to try to embody these ideals as well:
“Just as the Torah accords the Melech great honor and commands everyone to honor him, so does the Torah command that the Melech’s heart be exceedingly humble…The Melech must not demonstrate an excessive air of pride before the people...He must be gracious and merciful to young and old, going and coming to provide for their desires and for their wellbeing. And he must be sensitive to the dignity of even the lowliest. And when he speaks to the public, he must do so with softness…The Melech must conduct himself with extreme humility…And he must bear the burdens and complaints of the people, like a person tending to an infant. The Torah calls the Melech a shepherd, to guide the Flock of Yaakov…" (Hil. Melachim 2:6)
“And his actions shall always be for the sake of heaven, and his goal and focus shall be to promote the true faith, and to fill the world with righteousness, and to destroy the wicked and wage the battles of Hashem…” (Ibid. 4:9)
May we soon again merit to have the special persona of the Melech in our midst, and may we each individually strive to embody the required traits of the Melech in our own lives.