Shoftim: Long Live the King...

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

What is the ideal form of leadership for Am Yisrael:

  • a NAVI [a prophet];
  • a SHOFET [a judge];
  • a KOHEN [a priest];
  • a MELECH [a king]?

As Parshat Shoftim mentions each of these four ‘models’, in this week's shiur we discuss this important question.


It is not by chance that Parshat Shoftim discusses different forms of national leadership.  Recall how the main speech of Sefer Devarim (chapters 5-26) contains the mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael must observe upon their entry into the Land.  Considering that Parshat Shoftim is part of that speech, it only makes sense that this speech would contain a set of laws relating to the establishment of national leadership.  With this in mind, we begin our shiur with an analysis of the logical flow of topic from Parshat Re'eh to Parshat Shoftim.

Recall from our previous shiurim how Parshat Re'eh began the important “chukim u’mishpatim” section of the main speech (i.e. chapters 12-26).  This section opened with the topic of "ha’makom asher yivchar Hashem" - the site of the Bet Ha'Mikdash – which was to become the National and Religious Center.  That discussion continued with topics relating the establishment of other laws that would facilitate the creation of an “am kadosh” [a holy nation], such as special dietary laws, and a unique economic system protecting the ‘poor from the rich’.

Parshat Shoftim continues this theme in its opening discussion of a comprehensive judicial system (see 16:18-17:13). That topic, concluding with the establishment of a ‘supreme court, is followed by laws relating to the appointment of a king (see 17:14-20); laws relating to shevet Levi (see 18:1-8) and some guidelines relating to proper and improper ‘guidance councellors’ (see18:9-22).

As all of these mitzvot pertain to the political and religious leadership of the people, this would also facilitate the realization of God's goal for Am Yisrael to become His ‘model’ nation (see Breishit 12:1-3).  The nation's character will be crystallized not only by the special mitzvot that each individual must follow, but also by its national establishments.

"Ohr LaGoyim"

Our introductory remarks are based on not only our analysis of these mitzvot, but also Moshe Rabbeinu's own remarks at the conclusion his first speech (i.e. chapters 1->4). Moshe here explains WHY Bnei Yisrael should keep all these mitzvot which he is about to teach them:

"See I am teaching you CHUKIM & MISHPATIM...for you to abide in the LAND that you are about to conquer. Observe them faithfully:

  • For that will be PROOF of your wisdom in the EYES OF THE NATIONS, who will say upon hearing all these laws: Surely, THIS GREAT NATION is a wise people.
  • For what great nation is there that has GOD SO CLOSE to them...
  • and what great nation has laws as perfect as THIS TORAH which I set before you today!"

(see Devarim 4:5-8)

These pesukim inform us that the CHUKIM & MISHPATIM section of Sefer Devarim will contain mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael must keep IN ORDER to achieve this divine goal - to become an "ohr lagoyim" - a shining light for all nations. This requires the establishment of national institutions to mold its unique character. These institutions are to facilitate not only the spiritual growth of each individual citizen, but also the creation of a 'model nation' that will bring God's Name to all mankind.

The National Institutions

The first commandment of the CHUKIM & MISHPATIM section is the establishment of a National Center - BA'MAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM.  It is here where Bnei Yisrael are to gather on joyous occasions while offering their "korbanot" (see chapter 12), eat their "ma'aser sheni" (see chapter 14), and gather on the "shalosh regalim" (the three pilgrimage holidays/ see chapter 16).

However, the establishment of this center  is just one of the many mitzvot which are to facilitate the formation of God's model nation. Recall that Parshat Re'eh contains several other mitzvot which help create this "am kadosh" (holy nation):

  • the special dietary laws (see 14:2-21);
  • the laws of the seven year "shemitah" cycle (15:1-18), a national economic policy which helps guarantee social justice;
  • warnings against 'bad influences' which could thwart the development of God's special nation (12:29-13:19).

This theme continues in Parshat Shoftim, which describes several institutions of national LEADERSHIP:

  1. the SHOFET - a judicial system
  2. the LEVI - religious leadership & civil servants
  3. the NAVI - religious guidance & national direction
  4. the MELECH - political leadership

We begin our discussion with the first topic addressed in our parsha, the SHOFET - the establishment of a nationwide judicial system:

"You shall appoint Shoftim v'shotrim" (judges and officers) at ALL YOUR GATES (i.e. in every city) that God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice...

JUSTICE, JUSTICE, you must pursue, IN ORDER that you thrive and inherit the LAND... (16:18-20).

Several pesukim later (an explanation of the interim pesukim 16:21-17:6 is beyond the scope of the shiur), Parshat Shoftim continues this theme with the commandment to establish a SUPREME COURT at the NATIONAL CENTER:

"If there is a case too baffling for you to decide...matters of dispute in your courts - YOU SHALL GO UP to HAMAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM, before the KOHANIM, LEVIIM, or SHOFET, and present your case..." (17:8-11).

This institution serves as the HIGHEST authority for both civil disputes and halachic questions. Both TORAH and JUSTICE must emanate specifically from the site of the Temple, the National Center. Once again, this mitzvah reflects the primary purpose for God's choice of a special nation, as God had already explained in Sefer Breishit:

"For Avraham is to become a great NATION, and the nations of the world shall be blessed by him; for I have designated him IN ORDER that he command his children and his posterity to follow the WAY OF THE LORD by keeping TZEDAKAH & MISHPAT..." (see Breishit 18:17-19 and its context!).

Shevet Levi

Not only does the Torah require the appointment of judges, it also commissions an entire tribe - SHEVET LEVI - to become 'civil servants' for this purpose. The Leviim are not only to officiate in the Temple, but they must also serve as judges. Additionally, they are responsible for the teaching of Torah and the instruction of the halacha (Jewish Law).

This educational responsibility, which may only be implicit in Parshat Shoftim (see 17:9), is later stated explicitly by Moshe Rabbeinu in his final blessing to Shevet Levi:

"They shall TEACH Your LAWS to Yaakov and Your TORAH to Yisrael" (Devarim 33:9).

In fact, Parshat Shoftim identifies this tribal obligation as the reason why Shevet Levi does not receive a portion in the land:

"The KOHANIM & LEVIIM - the entire tribe of Levi - shall have no territorial portion within Israel. [Instead] they shall receive their portion from God's offerings... for God is their portion... You shall also give them the first portion of your grain, wine and oil, and the first shearing of your sheep. For God has chosen him [Levi] and his descendants from out of all your tribes TO SERVE IN THE NAME OF THE LORD for all time"   (see 18:1-5).

Not only does the Torah define their duty as civil servants, but it also details their 'compensation' for this service  (see also 18:6-8).

The Navi

This section, which deals with shevet Levi, is immediately followed by a discussion of to WHOM Bnei Yisrael should [and should not] turn for guidance:

"When you ENTER THE LAND which God is giving you, DO NOT learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. Let no one become...a soothsayer, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts and spirits, or inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord... [INSTEAD] God will raise up for you a NAVI - a Prophet, like myself (Moshe Rabbeinu). To HIM you shall listen...I will put My words in his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him..." (8:9-22).

These pesukim prohibit the consultation of any of a wide variety of popular 'soothsayers,' as was the practice of the nations of Canaan. Bnei Yisrael should rather seek guidance from the NAVI, who is to serve as a national 'advisor' through whom God will communicate His message.

So Who's in Charge?

Thus far, we have encountered a court system, judges, the tribe of Levi (the Torah instructors), and the NAVI (who offers spiritual guidance).  However, are any one of these leaders expected to provide political leadership as well?

  • Whose responsibility is it to actually oversee the CONSTRUCTION of the Bet HaMikdash, BAMAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR?
  • Whose duty is it to organize a standing army and lead the nation in battle?
  • Who will determine foreign and domestic policy?
  • Who will conduct and supervise the collection of taxes, the building of roads, the minting of coins, etc.?
  • Basically, who will run the country?

Neither from Parshat Shoftim or anywhere else in Chumash does it appear that these tasks are the responsibility of the kohanim, leviim, or the shoftim. Are they the responsibility of the NAVI - the Prophet?

The NAVI may, and probably should, serve as an ADVISOR to the political leadership, representing 'God's opinion' on important issues. Nevertheless, Parshat Shoftim clearly does not present him as a political leader.

Neither does the "shofet," presented at the beginning of the Parsha, emerge from the pesukim as a 'political leader.' Although he must ensure the execution of justice (16:20), he is not portrayed as a political leader.

[Note: The use of the name "shofet" in Sefer Shoftim to define the ad-hoc political leadership of that time is a fascinating topic unto itself, but requires independent treatment, beyond our scope in this context.]

The "Melech"

The answer to this question lies in one last category of national leadership discussed in Parshat Shoftim - the "melech" (king):

"When you have entered the land... and you will say: 'I want to have a KING, as do all the nations surrounding me,' appoint a KING over yourself, ONE CHOSEN BY GOD... -He must NOT keep too many horses...; -He must NOT have too many wives...; -He must NOT amass too much silver and gold. When he is seated on his royal throne -He must WRITE down this MISHNEH TORAH (the laws of Sefer Devarim) from in front of the Kohanim and Leviim; -He must KEEP IT with him and READ IT every day of his life IN ORDER that he learn to FEAR GOD.... - Thus, he will not act haughtily...or deviate from the Torah...IN ORDER that he and his children may continue to reign over Am Yisrael..." (see Devarim 17:14-20).

From the above pesukim alone, it is unclear whether the Torah OBLIGATES or merely ALLOWS for the appointment of  a king. [See Sanhedrin 20b and all the classic commentaries.]

However, it appears from the CONTEXT of these pesukim, especially in their relation to the other types of national leadership presented in Parshat Shoftim, that specifically the king is expected to provide political leadership. After all, who else will 'run the show'!?

Even though Moshe Rabbeinu himself acted as BOTH the "navi" and king (i.e the political leader), it seems that this 'double duty' is the exception rather than the norm. [Later in Jewish History, certain situations may arise [e.g. Shmuel] when the national leader may also serve as NAVI, but this is not the standard procedure.]

The Making of a Nation

Given God's desire that Bnei Yisrael become His 'model nation,' it is quite understandable why some form of central government is necessary. After all, in order to become a prosperous nation, at least some form of political leadership is needed to coordinate and administer its development.

One could suggest that when the Torah speaks of a king, it may be referring to any type of political leadership with central authority, regardless of the political system by which he is elected (be it a democracy, a monarchy, theocracy, etc.). The Torah speaks specifically of a 'kingdom,' for at the time of Matan Torah, that form of government was the most common. However, these laws regarding 'the king' would apply equally to any form of political leadership.

"K'Chol HaGoyim"

This interpretation may help us understand the phrase "melech k'chol haGoyim" - a king like the other nations (see 17:14 and perush of the Netziv in Emek Davar). The Torah is not encouraging Bnei Yisrael to request a king who ACTS like the kings of neighboring countries. Rather, they will request a FORM OF GOVERNMENT similar to that of the neighboring countries.

This observation may very well relate to the very concept of the singularity the Jewish Nation. Although we must remain different from other nations, we must still be a nation, in the full sense of the term. Hence, Am Yisrael does not need to be different from other nations with regard to the FORM of its political leadership, rather in the MANNER by which its political leaderships acts!

Once a specific leader is chosen, the Torah must guarantee that he does not grow too proud of his stature (see 17:16-17,20). Instead, he should use his invested powers to lead Am Yisrael towards becoming an "am kadosh." To this end, he must review the mitzvot of Sefer Devarim - MISHNEH TORAH - on a daily basis (see 17:19!). This is how we can become a 'model nation.'

Basically, "Parshat HaMelech" in Sefer Devarim sets the 'guidelines' for the behavior of the political leadership of Am Yisrael so that they fulfill God's destiny. Whereas this constitutes a primary theme of the main speech of Sefer Devarim, it is only appropriate that Parshat Shoftim deals specifically with this aspect of political leadership.

A Challenge

Undoubtedly, an inherent danger exists once political power is invested in a strong central government. But without a stable, authoritative body, a country cannot prosper and develop to its maximum potential.

It is the Torah's challenge to Am Yisrael to become a nation that resembles all other nations with regard to the establishment of a sovereign political entity. However, at the same time, it is the Torah's challenge to Am Yisrael that they be DIFFERENT from all other nations in the manner by which that leadership behaves and governs; for we are to become God's 'model nation.'

This form of national government will not diminish the Kingdom of Heaven, but will rather promote the universal recognition of God's Kingdom and further the glorification and sanctification of His Name.