"From the place HaShem will choose"
In this week's Torah reading of Shoftim, Moshe rabbenu outlines in broad strokes the major national elements of Torah-based sovereignty to be applied in the land of Israel. As we recall in last week's reading of Re'eh, Moshe emphasized the centrality of the Holy Temple to all aspects of communal life in the land. In our current reading of Shoftim, Moshe describes the shoftim, (judges) and the shotrim, (officers who will ensure that the rulings of the judges are carried out). He also touches upon the institution of kingship, and the very specific commandments that apply to both the appointing of a king and to the functioning of a king. Lastly, he discusses the advent of war, specifically the role of the priesthood in war and exemptions granted in special cases allowing soldiers to be released from their martial obligations.
On careful reading it becomes evident that the Torah is presenting a clear and sophisticated understanding of the mechanics of good government. Each one of the branches of government listed above essentially operates independently of the other. That is, the judiciary does not carry out the will of the king. Nor does the police force or the military. Even the king does not ultimately carry out his own will. There is a law in the land, a constitution, if you will, and it is called Torah. The sole purpose of the judges is to understand, interpret and present their rulings according to the Torah received at Sinai. The police force's sole responsibility is to ensure that the rulings of the courts are carried out.
The king is to be chosen by the people, or by someone entrusted with the will of the people, (as in the case of the prophet Samuel). He is not above the law, but is charged with leading the sovereign nation in accordance with Torah law and informed by the national vision of Torah. As described in Shoftim, the king is to actually write for himself a sefer Torah, (Torah scroll), and carry it upon his body at all times. Thusly it is ensured that the king will possess an intimate knowledge of Torah and that its truths will never part from him, both figuratively and literally. Lest he be tempted to stray from his task of ruling the people according to Torah, and instead fall prey to excessive pride or greed as is the often the way when individuals are invested with tremendous temporal power, Torah lays out the following restrictions:
"you shall set a king over you, one whom HaShem, your G-d, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother. Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself, so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for HaShem said to you, "You shall not return that way any more." And he shall not take many wives for himself, and his heart must not turn away, and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself. And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll from [that Torah which is] before the Levitic kohanim. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear HaShem, his G-d, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them, so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel." (Deuteronomy 17:15-20)
In effect, the king as described is an executive, akin in the extent of his power to the president of the United States. The idea of an absolute monarchy is entirely foreign to Torah. Only G-d is the true King.
The king does act as commander-in-chief to the army of Israel. Here we might think that the king possesses in his grip extensive and perhaps excessive power. However, once again, the Torah introduces a counterbalance to the authority of the king. Deuteronomy chapter 20 describes how a specially appointed Temple priest will preside over the troops as they assemble in the field for battle. He will exhort them to be fearless, assuring them that "G-d, is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you." (ibid 20:4) And it is the priest who will oversee the exemptions granted for dispensation from the battlefield in the specific cases delineated by Torah. Here we see that it is the priesthood likewise exercises moral authority over the army.
Earlier in our reading it is stated, "If a matter eludes you in judgment, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, or between lesion and lesion, words of dispute in your cities, then you shall rise and go up to the place HaShem, your G-d, chooses." (ibid 17:8) "The place" of course, is the Holy Temple. From this we learn that the Great Sanhedrin, the "Supreme Court" of Israel is to be physically located within the Holy Temple complex. We can further conclude, from the role played by the priesthood on the battlefield as well as the location of the Great Sanhedrin, the centrality of the Holy Temple to the governmental body established by Torah to enable Israel to exercise its sovereignty in the land.
While each of these branches of government are independent of each other, they are all answerable to the word of Torah from where they derive the source of their authority. This source is symbolized and manifested in the Holy Temple, the place where G-d's presence dwells, and where the Divine interfaces with man and the nation. Any government of Israel, even a government aspiring to adhere to Torah, is greatly diminished, both in terms of its moral authority and in terms of ability to properly organize and impose the rule of law, in the absence of the Holy Temple.
The Holy Temple is not merely the "icing on the cake," in terms of Israel's ability to fulfill Torah; it is not a monument or an ethereal expression of Israel's sovereignty in the land; it is not a grand cathedral, or a place devoted to an arcane ritualistic practice. The Holy Temple is the central, integral, intrinsic, vital and necessary component of exercising sovereignty. What Torah has set before us is not, as some might disparagingly claim, a theocracy, led by elitist and obscure clerics answerable only to their god. On the contrary, Israel's proper exercise of sovereignty in the land is a Torah-cracy, in which Israel strives to realize the word, the spirit and the aspirations of the Sinai covenant between G-d and His nation Israel, and over which G-d presides from the "place that He chooses," the Holy Temple.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven welcome in the new month of Elul: That's right, the King is in His field and we're all out here in the field with Him. As this week's parasha states, judges & officers are at our gates, as we enter the month of Elul and as Israel prepares to enter the land G-d has promised. The judicial system, the police force, the executive and the military are all featured in this week's Torah reading of Shoftim, which describes how each of these facets of society are connected one to the other, how all of them are expressions of G-d's will for the nation of Israel, and how each of them are intrinsically connected to the Holy Temple, the heart and the soul of the nation.