The Heart of the Nation

In the Torah portion of Shoftim, we learn the laws relating to the appointment and conduct of a Jewish king.1 Concerning a Jewish monarch’s character, the Rambam states:2 “His heart is the heart of the entire Jewish people.”

The simple reason3 for a king being called the heart of the Jewish people is because the vitality of any living body is dependent upon the vitality of its heart.4 So too, the entire people are dependent upon their king.5

But although the heart does indeed play a primary role in providing life to the body, the brain is even more vital, responsible as it is for the vitality and conduct of the entire body, including the heart.

Why then does the Rambam liken a king — whose purpose is to lead and direct the people (“Who brings them forth and leads them, like a shepherd who leads his flock”6) — to the heart and not the brain?

Supreme or Subservient?

Aside from the king’s role in leading the nation in battle and conducting the affairs of state, there is another aspect to his kingship: all his needs and desires are to be met by his subjects.7

This latter feature highlights a contradiction: On the one hand, it demonstrates the awesome power of a king, that the entire nation and all its possessions are subject to his desires.

On the other hand, it points to a king’s inherent weakness in comparison to his subjects: the king is entirely dependent upon their gifts for the fulfillment of his needs, while they gain their livelihood as a result of their own work.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is that, since a Jewish king’s primary responsibility lies in serving his subjects, he receives his needs from them.

The reason why a king is likened to the heart and not to the brain will be understood accordingly. Among the major differences between the heart and brain are the following:

a) the heart is constantly in motion, while the brain remains motionless;

b) the brain is a hardier organ, much less likely to give out than the heart.

These two characteristics are linked. The heart’s entire function is to pump life-giving blood throughout the body. As such, it is constantly in motion, and carrying out its purpose of providing life to the other organs. Moreover, since the heart exists only for the sake of the other organs, it is inherently “weak.”

The brain, however, although the source of life for the entire human organism, remains aloof from it, existing as an entity unto itself. It is therefore motionless, not having to demonstrate its interaction with the other parts of the body. Furthermore, since it possesses independent existence, it is much hardier than the heart.

A king is thus likened to the heart and not to the brain. He constantly works for the welfare of his subjects, whom he serves — as the heart’s purpose is to serve the body. And like the heart, there is a “weakness” in his existence: he must depend on his subjects for his needs.

This also helps us understand why Jewish kings were not permitted to be members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court.8 The king was wholly immersed in providing for the ongoing needs of his people. As such, he was not free to adjudicate the laws of the Torah. It was the Nassi, the spiritual head and “brain” of the Jewish people and leader of the Sanhedrin , who rendered Torah rulings; the king acted as the nation’s heart.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XIX, pp. 165-169