“When you come to the Land that HaShem your G-d gives you, and inherit it and settle within it, and you say ‘I will set a king upon myself, like all the nations which are around me,’ You shall surely place a king over you, whom HaShem your G-d will choose; from among your brothers shall you place a king over you, you cannot place a foreign man over you, who is not your brother. Only, he should not acquire many horses, and he should not return the nation to Egypt in order to increase his stable… “ [17:14-16]
We are told that the Jews were promised a land of milk and honey. If this is so, why would a king need to return to Egypt in order to increase the number of horses in his stable? He could simply import more to Israel and breed them there, with the more than adequate food available.
My wife’s grandfather, Rav Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg z”l, explains: the Torah is not merely speaking about physical movement, but a shift in ideology. Indeed, the entire passage discussing the elevation of the king is devoted to securing the spiritual well-being of the king and his nation.
“You shall surely place a king over you, whom HaShem your G-d will choose…” — kingship over Israel is a spiritual matter. G-d, through His prophets, will choose the appropriate person. “From among your brothers shall you place a king over you…” — meaning, your brother in the Commandments. The king must be a knowledgeable and G-d-fearing Jew.
Why, then, must the king not acquire many horses? This is a matter of a philosophy, a way of thinking. The Egyptians amassed great armies — “Pharoah’s chariots and Army, He threw into the Sea…” [Exodus 15:4] Their Pharoahs were mighty rulers, while our kings are commanded not to return in that direction. Ours is a way of life not built upon physical prowess or strength. Our kings must not fall prey to that ideology.
The parsha goes further: the king is commanded to write two copies of the Torah, to keep the Torah with him, and should read from it “all the days of his life.” Thus the king was to acquire and maintain fear of Heaven, and to observe the Torah and perform its Commandments. A Jewish king recognizes that in actuality, he is merely a servant of a Higher authority. The Torah commands that he do all this “so that his heart does not lift itself over his brothers.” The intent is the same: he remains one of the people, and he is responsible for them and their spiritual well-being. Unlike monarchies in other nations, the Jewish king must remain part of the people, and care for them.
“…And not turn from the Commandment right or left…” — Rav Hertzberg refers to the verse, “Even my hand established the world, and my right hand forged the Heavens.” The King must not turn away from the Commandments he must observe between himself and G-d — the right hand, the Heavens — nor those between him and his fellow man, to the left, on earth.
In recent days, a Jewish organization in the United States called upon the Jewish Vice-Presidential candidate to stop talking about religious values. What could they have been thinking? Even the most avowedly secular person should be happy that the potential rulers of the nation think that they must answer to Someone. If we are in exile, it should be some small comfort to find Jewish values reaching out to the world.
Rulership is an awesome responsibility. Fortunate is the nation whose king genuinely recognizes that he, too, is ruled by a Higher Authority — and evidences this as a genuine part of his daily affairs, rather than merely paying lip-service to the idea. That ruler will recognize that he is responsible to the people, and cannot do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, with whomever he wants.
In recent years, America experienced enough of the latter. We should be delighted to see candidates, on both sides of the isle, Jewish and non-Jewish, expressing some of the former. Fear of G-d is good for ethical development — not only should we like to see it in a political candidate, but — more important — we should inculcate it within ourselves, as well!