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As the Torah continues with Moshe’s final lessons to Bnei Yisrael, the overall theme of Parshas Shoftim, this week’s parsha, is leadership. A good portion of the parsha deals with different leadership positions, their responsibilities and privileges, and how the nation should relate to each position. For the most part, the parsha talks to the leaders themselves more so than the followers. I would like to address the relationship between two of these positions.
At the beginning of the second Aliya, the Torah discusses the laws of a Jewish king. In Sefer Shmuel (I Chapter 8), Shmuel HaNavi describes the role of a king in relation to the people, stating basically that he has full authority to do whatever he wants and the nation is obligated to follow him. Here in our parsha, the Torah tells us what limitations the king must keep. He is restricted by how much money, possessions, and wives he is allowed to have, but most of all, he is required to carry a full sefer Torah around with him at all times and continually study it. This is to remind him that while he may be the king, he is still obligated to a Higher Power and must make all his decisions and judgements based on the Torah. By keeping to the Torah, the pasuk says that his kingdom will rule forever.
So who will insure that the king will keep to the Torah? We can’t expect the nation to do it, who says their knowledge of Torah is any better than the king’s! The Torah answers this question in the pesukim immediately following.
The next leaders discussed in the parsha are the Kohanim (and Leviim), who are in charge of the services in the Beis Hamikdash as well as being responsible for teaching Torah to the nation. The Ibn Ezra explains that the king is the ultimate judge of the nation while the Kohanim are the ones who are obligated to make sure the nation has the ability to study Torah, and is doing so. Therefore, they are the ones who can ensure the king remains true to the Torah.
The Kli Yakar gives another explanation that solidifies the connection between these two leaders. When the Torah writes that the Kohanim don’t receive a portion, it says, “וְנַֽחֲלָ֥ה לֹא־יִֽהְיֶה־לּ֖וֹ בְּקֶ֣רֶב אֶחָ֑יו” “He will not have an inheritance among his brothers” (Devarim 18:2). He focuses in on the phrase “בְּקֶ֣רֶב אֶחָ֑יו”, a wording which appears infrequently in the Torah. He explains that while it is written by the Kohanim, this actually directly relates to the obligations of the king.
We may wonder, why does the Torah restrict the amount of horses and money a king can have? Why is it a big deal to allow him unlimited resources? The answer is that Bnei Yisrael won’t be able to provide these excessive resources, and the king will have to go to other countries to fulfill his desires. As a result, the king will become used to having his needs filled by other countries and soon, when there is a real need for materials, he will place his faith of salvation on the ability of other countries to provide for him.
Hashem doesn’t want this, He wants there to be an attitude of בְּקֶרֶב אֶחָיו, that the king should have a strong connection with his nation. And through them, he will feel a connection to their guiding force, the Torah. The Ohr HaChaim explains that these two topics are placed next to each other to show even the king is obligated to give gifts to the Kohanim, just like the Torah obligates every person in Bnei Yisrael. Says the Kli Yakar, this phrase is placed in the discussion of the Kohanim so the king should understand that he must listen to what the Kohanim teach him; while he is the highest authority in the land, his highest obligation is to Hashem and the Torah.
On the surface, the king and the Kohanim couldn’t be more different. A king lives in a huge palace, doesn’t lack for anything and can ask for anything he wants from the people. A Kohen has no land to call his own and must rely on the generosity of others to survive. However, they represent the nation to Hashem by serving in the Beis Hamikdash and they are responsible for the continued Torah education of the nation; as such, they hold the key to there being an environment of בְּקֶרֶב אֶחָיו in Eretz Yisrael, they keep the king true to the Torah. They are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the good of the entire nation. And among the Jewish People, the obligation to the Torah rises above all else.
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