Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:18 – 21:9
This week’s Torah reading has particular instruction for the king and by extension, instructions that apply to every leader.
“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” (Deut. 17:18). He is further instructed that he must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never violate God’s commandments.
But not only that; “…so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” (Kaplan translation), and yet another translation says it this way: “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers”
The Torah commands the king (leader) to cultivate humility.
There are other commandments directed to the King in this week’s reading but this one trumps them all. If humility fills his heart, obeying the other instructions will be easy. The decline of the great king Solomon gives clear example of this principle. Solomon justified his breach of the remaining 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 (1 Kings 11:3), and his horses were imported from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28-29). The arrogance of power is its downfall. Arrogance birthed the feeling in him that because he was ‘above’ the people, he was also ‘above’ the law.
For this very reason, the Torah insists on humility, not as something ‘nice’ but as a moral quality essential to leadership, political and spiritual. Maimonides wrote:
Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to respect him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, as it says: ‘My heart is empty within me’ (Ps. 109:22). Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Deut. 17:20).
He 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….” (1 Chronicles 28:2), and similarly, “If today you will be a servant to these people…” (1 Kings 12:7).
He should always conduct himself with great humility. (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6)
The model of both political and spiritual leadership in the Torah is Moses, described as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).
In fulfilling his mission, Moses was certainly not bashful, weak or lacking in confidence when he stood before Pharaoh and demanded, ‘Let my people go.’ He was not reluctant to rebuke the children of Israel when they needed correction.
Humility means giving honor where honor is due; caring about and respecting others. Humility is not about putting yourself down; it is about lifting other people up. God loves all people. His care extends to all regardless of rank or position. We are commanded to emulate Him for after all, are we not made in His image and likeness? Including the king?
There is a little publicized event that occurred during the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth of England.
It happened in St James Palace on 27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Queen is known to be scrupulously punctual, 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.
She was meeting a group of Holocaust survivors. She gave each survivor – and it was a large group – her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each person until they finished telling their personal story. Later one of them said, “Sixty years ago I did not know whether I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.” Giving her full attention to each of those survivors was a gift of healing 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 on display. She did not consider herself any less the Queen but as the Queen, made time to give honor to those survivors, even ignoring her usual disciplined punctuality.
And where you find humility, there you find greatness. For true greatness is humility.
In Tune with Torah this week = humility is not just a requirement for leaders. Humility makes the least of us great in the eyes of God which after all, is where it really counts, isn’t it? How do we treat others? Have we formed the habit of treating others with respect, with kindness? Are we quick to judge by appearances or have we learned to give the benefit of the doubt, to allow that we may not know everything there is to know about another person’s decision or action? This is no contradiction to standing up for righteousness and justice. But even in taking a stand, as Moses did with Pharaoh, it is the attitude of the heart in doing so that divides humility from arrogance.