There is a fascinating detail in
the passage about the king in this week’s parsha. The text says that “When he
takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah
on a scroll before the levitical priests.” He must
“read it all the days of his life” so that he will be G‑d-fearing and never
break Torah law. But there is another reason also: so that he will “not begin
to feel superior to his brethren” (Kaplan translation), “so that his heart be
not haughty over his brothers” (Robert Alter). The king had to have humility.
The highest in the land should not feel himself to be the highest in the land.
is hugely significant in terms of the Jewish understanding of political
leadership. There are other commands directed to the king. He must not
accumulate horses so as not to establish trading links with Egypt. He should
not have too many wives for “they will lead his heart astray.” He should not
accumulate wealth. These were all standing temptations to a king. As we know
and as the sages pointed out, it was these three prohibitions that Solomon,
wisest of men, broke, marking the beginning of the long slow slide into
corruption that marked much of the history of the monarchy in ancient Israel.
It led, after his death, to the division of the kingdom.
these were symptoms, not the cause. The cause was the feeling on the part of
the king that, since he is above the people he is above the law. As the rabbis
justified his breach of these prohibitions by saying: the only reason that a
king may not accumulate wives is that they will lead his heart astray, so I
will marry many wives and not let my heart be led astray. And since the only
reason not to have many horses is not to establish links with Egypt, I will
have many horses but not do business with Egypt. In both cases he fell into the
trap of which the Torah had warned. Solomon’s wives did lead his heart astray, and his
horses were imported from Egypt. The
arrogance of power is its downfall. Hubris leads to nemesis.
the Torah’s insistence on humility, not as a mere nicety, a good thing to have,
but as essential to the role. The king was to be treated with the highest honor.
In Jewish law, only a king may not renounce the honor due to his role. A parent
may do so, so may a rav, so may even a nasi, but not a king. Yet
there is to be a complete contrast between the external trappings of the king
and his inward emotions.
Maimonides is eloquent on the
Just as the
Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to revere him, so
it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, as it says: 'My heart is empty
Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, “so that
his heart be not haughty over his brothers.”
should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself
in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of
men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, as it
says, “Listen my brothers and my people...,” and
similarly, “If today you will be a servant to these people...” He
should always conduct himself with great humility. There was none greater than
Moses, our teacher. Yet he said: “What are we? Your complaints are not against
should bear the nation's difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse
carries an infant.
The model is Moses, described in
the Torah as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.”
“Humble” here does not mean diffident, meek, self-abasing, timid, bashful,
demure or lacking in self-confidence. Moses was none of these. It means
honoring others and regarding them as important, no less important than you
are. It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding other people high.
It means roughly what Ben Zoma meant when he said, “Who is
honored? One who honors others.” This led to one of the great rabbinic
teachings, contained in the siddur and said on motzei Shabbat:
said, Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you
find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and
stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the L‑rd
your G‑d is G‑d of G‑ds and L‑rd of L‑rds, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring
G‑d, who shows no favoritism and accepts no bribe.” Immediately afterwards it
is written, “He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the
stranger, giving him food and clothing…”
G‑d cares for all regardless of rank,
and so must we, even a king, especially a king. Greatness is humility.
the context of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth the Second, there is a
story worth telling. It happened in St James Palace on 27 January 2005, the
sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Punctuality, said Louis
XVIII of France, is the politeness of kings. Royalty arrives on time and leaves
on time. So it is with the Queen, but not on this occasion. When the time came
for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed. One of her attendants said he had
never known her to linger so long after her scheduled departure time.
was meeting a group of Holocaust survivors. She gave each survivor – it was a
large group – her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they
had finished telling their personal story. One after another, the survivors
were coming to me in a kind of trance, saying, “Sixty years ago I did not know
whether I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.”
It brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives. Sixty years
earlier they had been treated, in Germany, Austria, Poland, in fact in most of
Europe, as subhuman, yet now the Queen was treating them as if each were a
visiting Head of State. That was humility: not holding yourself low but holding
others high. And where you find humility, there you find greatness.
is a lesson for each of us. R. Shlomo of Karlin said, Der grester yetser
hora is az mir fargest az mi is ein ben melekh, “The greatest source of sin
is to forget we are children of the king.” We say Avinu malkenu, “Our
father, our king.” It follows that we are all members of a royal family and
must act as if we are. And the mark of royalty is humility.
real honor is not the honor we receive but the honor we give.