The verses in our parashah are not explicit as to whether the institution of monarchy altogether is an ideal or a concession. The verses about the appointment of the king, known as parashat hamelekh, alternate between describing the process as one initiated by the people, with questionable motivation, and one that is directed by God. “When you come to the land that the Lord your God gives you … and you say, ‘I will place upon me a king like all of the nations around me.’ You shall surely place upon yourself a king that the Lord your God chooses…”
The request for monarchy is issued by the people, and for the dubious reason of wanting to emulate the surrounding nations — and yet, the Torah goes on to describe the king as selected by God, and to use language that is often associated with divine commandment. There is a classical disagreement as to whether there is a mitzvah to appoint a king (Tosefta Sanhedrin 3c), and although most Jewish legal authorities ultimately rule that there is such a commandment, the language of the Torah reminds us nonetheless of the moral complexity and ambiguity of human authority.
The subsequent verses continue the see-saw effect: they recognize the grandeur of kingship while simultaneously seeking to curb it. The king is prohibited from having an excessive number of wives (defined by Talmud Sanhedrin 21a as more than 18), and from accumulating excessive wealth and horses so that he not return the people to Egypt in order to acquire horses. Ramban points out that the Torah’s prohibition against returning to Egypt is stated only in the context of returning in order to set up residence; it is permitted to go to Egypt to conduct commerce. Nonetheless, the Torah is concerned about a king’s potential desire to return to Egypt to buy horses because horses and Egypt represent, in the Torah, overconfidence in one’s own strength and underemphasis on faith and introspection.
The parashat hamelekh requires that the king write a sefer Torah to accompany him and to serve as his moral compass, and culminates with an explicit statement of the purpose of all of the rules that have been stated: “so that his heart not become haughty over his brothers, and that he not turn away from the commandment right or left . . .”
It is striking that the Torah contains no description of ideal forms of leadership or governance, or of any of the national roles or responsibilities incumbent upon the king. The parashat hamelekh is an example of a section of the Torah that makes a surprising, radical statement that, because of our familiarity with it, may pass unnoticed. Its thesis is that there are any number of forms of government that may be effective or appropriate in various circumstances, and that a vast range of personalities has the potential for excellent leadership. The only quality that is the sine qua non of legitimate leadership is humility that is coupled with a commitment to moral behavior.
Parashat Shoftim thus reflects an idealistic vision of a national leader who is also a person of spiritual depth and moral rectitude, and at the same time is explicit that humility in leadership is unnatural, and is achieved with difficulty. Ultimately, the Torah’s concern is not for a particular brand of leadership or governance, but to remind us of the danger of charisma and ego. As we seek to navigate our way through this very challenging period in our nation’s life, may we be blessed with the wisdom to discern true leaders and to make choices that reflect the values of malkhut shamayim, the kingdom of heaven.