Torah Thoughts for Today
Wednesday, August 07, 2013
Weekly Torah Portion of SHOFTIM
Balance of Power: It’s a Torah Concept
Shoftim means “judges” in Hebrew. It is in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9).
People think that the modern constitutional and political concept of “the balance of power” between different branches of government is something that was created “ex nihilo” in modern times. Particularly in America, people would be hard-pressed to realize that the origins of this formulation for good government and governance was directly derived from the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, by America’s Founding Fathers who were devout Christians who placed great emphasis not just on knowledge of the Hebrew Bible but who also drew not just inspiration from it, but when they got around to formulating a formal constitution for the newly formed United States of America after the American Revolution of 1776, they looked at, and directly derived from, the Hebrew Bible how a government should be set up.
Just reviewing the main topics makes this very clear. Commandments to appoint and/or accept legitimate; Judges, administrators, elders and police; a Supreme Court, a Monarchy; Priests; Prophets; Witnesses; War-time leaders. For all of these there is a role. The constitutional structure of the land where the Jews will live, in Israel, is to have all of these functioning in harmony simultaneously. There is no conflict between of them if all goes well and all are guided by the fact that it is God who has commended it and through the Torah teaches the Israelites how they are to govern themselves.
In the passage of time, more like the several millennia from the time that Moses received the Torah and taught it to the Children of Israel over 3,300 years ago, until two to three millennia later, through its acceptance by both other religions and secular cultures, the Torah’s system of government has become viewed as the “perfect system” even though it is noted more for the lapses it has suffered than for the perfect order and society it was meant to usher in.
Now one might say, wait a minute, the ancient Greeks and also to some extent the Romans had a form of government that had a “Democracy” or a “Senate” or some form devolution and sharing of power from the absolute tyrannies of ancient monarchies. And it is from those lessons of history that modern men such as the American Founding Fathers drew their inspiration. However, it may be very partially true, probably mostly false, because Greece and Rome were the “new kids on the block” since ancient Greece and Rome arose and flourished about 1,000 to 1,500 years after the Torah was taught to the Children of Israel.
As the famous British Prime Minister of Jewish origins Benjamin Disraeli retorted to an anti-Semitic barb thrown at him in the British Parliament in the 1800s: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island [Ireland], mine were priests in the temple of Solomon. (Reply to a taunt by Daniel O'Connell [an Irish political leader, per Wikipedia].)
And since it is Disraeli who refers to the ancient King Solomon, son of King David and Bathsheba, who lived about 3,000 years ago, it is worthwhile to note that the Torah warns with the utmost severity that appointing a king could lead to problems, with NOT ENOUGH BALANCE OF POWERS AS A CAUSE OF DESTRUCTION, and many, many problems did eventually emanate from the Jewish kings of both the Kingdom of Israel and the subsequent King of Judah.
The very start of the Jewish monarchy was riddled with problems and infighting between two rival dynasties, that of King Saul (father of Jonathan and of Michal who became King David’s childless wife) and then that of King David who had the throne thrust upon him by the Prophet Samuel on account of the failings of King Saul. All this is recounted in great detail in the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings in the Tanach, and it did not have a “happy ending” at all! Both Jewish kingdoms, of Israel and Judah, were eventually destroyed. Eventually the two Jewish Temples were destroyed as well. And the Jewish people went into two exiles, first a short seventy year exile, then a longer over 2,000 year exile still ongoing. Not to mention the utter destruction of the Kingdom of Israel when its people became the Ten Lost Tribes!
There were so many problems with the ancient Jewish monarchies that not just the accounts of how they arose and what happened to them during their existence are in the Tanach in the Books of Samuel and Kings, but there are even more significantly the great books of the Prophets in the Tanach that recount how prophets arose, and some at the risk of their own lives rebuked the kings and the people for having strayed from the Torah paths that God had required of them. The books and works of Isaiah and Jeremiah and all the other prophets in the Tanach all focus primarily on the consequences of a nation going astray.
The Jewish people have yet to accomplish, yet continue to pray for, a present of a future where the “balance of power” will be restored in Israel!
But there should have been no surprise really, because the Torah itself forewarned that all this could happen. It is as if the warnings were also missed by the Kings of France and the Czars of Russia and many others in modern times who lost their power and wealth, and some even paid with their lives, for mishandling the power and wealth they had selfishly forgotten was handed to them as a trust (even if they viewed themselves as having a “Divine Right of Kings” they should have used that “Right” the way the “Divine” had wanted them to do originally) and not as a private property “expense account” to be spent on self-gratification and nepotism alone.
Let us hope and pray that that whoever the leaders of the Jewish people are or will be, will be upstanding and righteous people.
Here are the words of the Torah as forewarning what would happen with the wrong kinds of kings and leaders, translation from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan edition:
“When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you, so that you have occupied it and settled it, you will eventually say, 'We would like to appoint a king, just like all the nations around us.' You must then appoint the king whom God your Lord shall choose. You must appoint a king from among your brethren; you may not appoint a foreigner who is not one of your brethren. [The king,] however, must not accumulate many horses, so as not to bring the people back to Egypt to get more horses. God has told you that you must never again return on that path. He [also] must not have many wives, so that they not make his heart go astray. He shall likewise not accumulate very much silver and gold. When [the king] is established on his royal throne, he must write a copy of this Torah as a scroll edited by the Levitical priests. [This scroll] must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life. He will then learn to be in awe of God his Lord, and carefully keep every word of this Torah and these rules. He will then [also] not begin to feel superior to his brethren, and he will not stray from the mandate to the right or the left. He and his descendants will thus have a long reign in the midst of Israel.” (Deuteronomy, Chapter 17: 14-20).
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