Someone once gave me a fairly depressing definition of a politician: someone we entrust to lead our countries but would never consider inviting to our dinner table. I do not remember where I read that quote, but it can unfortunately sum up too many people we know of involved in politics. The potential for power, wealth and influence that is associated with politics becomes too much of a temptation to resist and we unfortunately see far too often humans in leadership positions succumb.
Leadership is a quality that is constantly lauded and sought after, but that high bar of integrity is not always achieved. In many places in our tradition, qualities of leadership are extolled, chief among them being humility. We read regarding Moses, the only feature of his character in the Torah, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Various other teachings are also brought to remind any would-be leader that they are responsible not to themselves, but to those who they are entrusted with leading.
The Torah gives us a novel answer to this issue. In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, we are taught that the king must be limited in power and always reminded of his role and place. As we read in Devarim chap 17:16-18:
16 Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since God has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”
17 And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
18 When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall write a copy of this Teaching for himself on a scroll from the one that is in the charge of the Levitical priests.
All of these regulations are designed to attempt to limit the power of the king. The horses pertain to limiting the size of the standing military. Limiting the number of wives seeks to protect against conflicting political alliances. The amassing of overwhelming wealth is guard against corruption.
In our day, it seems that political corruption is commonplace and inevitable. It is very easy for our hearts to go astray. It is natural to want to enjoy the wealth and status of power. It is when this desire overrides the primary reason for being in power in the first place, to serve those who elected you that a problem exists. Leaders have to rise above human nature because the nature of their work is far bigger than any one person. Hence the command to actually write a copy of the Torah, to ensure that the lessons of leadership are not lost on the king.
The text is teaching a far greater lesson than simply for politicians and leaders, in that we are commanded to have respect for and honour all people and things that we have control over. Let us strive to recall our obligation to others even as we lead them.
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth