Weekly Torah Commentary – Shoftim August 20, 2015

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

In this week’s Torah lesson we read a fascinating instruction to the king.

“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). The passage furthur instructs the king that he must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never break God’s commandments. But there is another reason also: so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” or as another translation puts it: “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers”.

In short: The king was required to have humility. The most powerful in the land should not feel himself to be the most powerful in the land.

To be sure the king is given other commandments and Solomon’s failures can be directly traced to the deterioration of the humility which he so beautifully exhibited at the beginning of his reign.

When any leader, religious or political, begins to feel that because he is ‘above’ the people he is also ‘above’ the law, that nation or group will soon have a tyrant or dictator at the helm. The Bible knows nothing of leadership without humility. Ultimately, the arrogance of power will produce its own downfall. It is inevitable and history proves it to be so.

The Torah’s insistence on humility is much more than an urging to “be nice”. Humility is essential to leadership. Maimonides, the great Jewish sage, commented as follows:
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. There was none greater than Moses, our teacher. Yet he said: “What are we? Your complaints are not against us” (Ex. 16:8). He should bear the nation’s difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse carries an infant. (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6)

The Torah model of God-fearing leadership is Moses who is described as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

Moses was hardly meek, timid or bashful. Rather Moses refused to ‘lord it over’ the people. He honored those under his charge, considered them important and pleaded with God on their behalf. Humility doesn’t mean demeaning yourself; it means properly honoring others. We read in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Who is honored? One who honors others.” Pirkei Avot 4:1

God’s love and care extends to all, regardless of rank or position. We, and especially a leader, must do likewise.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said: “The greatest source of sin is to forget we are children of the king.” We are all members of a royal family and must act as if we are. And the mark of true royalty is humility.

In Tune with Torah this week = examining our own attitude toward others whether we are leaders or not. Do we readily honor and respect other people? Even when their opinions differ from ours? The humble are more concerned with giving honor to others than receiving it for themselves. True greatness is manifest by humility.

Shabbat Shalom

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