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Shavua Tov: Too Many Horses

Last week, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, one of the longest-reigning monarchs of all time, passed away at the age of 96. As the world mourns her passing or criticizes the colonialism her reign represented, and as the Jewish world praises her protection of the Jewish people but scratches its head on why she never visited Israel, this blogger is struck by the timing of her passing, after the Shabbat that Parashat Shoftim was read.

Shoftim has something to say about rulers: “You shall be free to set a king over yourself one chosen by Adonai your God,” reads Deut. 17:18. However, this monarchy is not absolute:

“He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses…. And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests; let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere Adonai his God, to observe faithfully every word of this teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the instruction to the right or to the left…”

A head of state is subject to the law, not above it. One cannot yield wantonly to lust or greed. And one should be well studied in order to ensure one does not violate God’s law. The passage also implies that the monarch is not the head of the faith – that authority was bestowed on the High Priest, whose clan was denied any land ownings.

When the time finally arrived for the Israelites to anoint a king, the prophet Samuel and, apparently God Oneself, were quite resistant. God instructed Samuel to relent, as they were rejecting God, not Samuel. Samuel warned the people:

“He will take your sons, and appoint them to him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint them to him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your best young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks; and you shall be his servants. And you shall cry out in that day because of your king who you shall have chosen; and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” I Samuel 8:11-18

Don’t say he didn’t warn you. Alas, the Israelites blew Samuel off and found a military strongman named Saul. Two kings later, Solomon violated so many provisions – especially involving wives, horses and silver – that one wonders if these Biblical passages were written with him in mind. Solomon ruled with an iron fist and enslaved some of his own people, and discontent was so strong that his kingdom split into two shortly after his death.

Maimonides lays out a character sketch for the ideal king:

“Just as Scripture has granted [the king] great honor and obligated all in honoring him, so has it enjoined [the king] to be humble and empty (of self-pride), as it is written, ‘and my heart is empty within me’ (Psalms 109:22). He should not act more proudly than necessary toward [the people] Israel, as it is written, ‘Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows’ (Deuteronomy 17:20). He should be gracious and merciful toward the lowly and the great. He should show concern for their property and welfare. He should show regard for the dignity of the lowliest. When he addresses the public, he should speak gently, as it is written, ‘Hear me, my brothers, my people!’ (I Chronicles 28:2). It is also written, ‘If you will be a servant to these people today, etc.’ (I Kings 12:7). He should always behave with great modesty. None was greater than our Teacher Moses of whom it is written, ‘What are we? Your complaints are not with us…’ (Exodus 16:8). He should bear with their troublesomeness, burdensomeness, complaining, and irritation as a governor bears with an infant. Scripture dubs him a shepherd: ‘to tend His people Jacob’ (Psalms 78:71). The way of the shepherd is stated in Tradition [that is, the Prophets], ‘as a shepherd He pastures his flock: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them in His bosom…” (Isaiah 40:11).'” Mishneh Torah: Laws of Kings and Wars 2:6

Maimonides goes on to warn against a king amassing a vast personal treasury, and even prescribes flogging if he were to do so. Furthermore, per the Mishnah, the king is only permitted to start a war of choice if the full Sanhedrin’s 71 members vote to authorize it. And most importantly, while we may refer to Solomon as the king, it is clear who the King of Kings is. Or, rather, the King of Kings of Kings – the Holy Blessed One. It is clear that a constitutional monarchy has strong Biblical and rabbinic roots.

The late queen measures up well by these standards, even though her hands were tied by the relegation of the position to a mostly ceremonial role. She had no authority to start a war, to form a government or even set policy. Queen Elizabeth received a horribly subpar education – learning mostly to sing and play piano. But, to her credit, she recognized her growing edges and as queen studiously caught up. She certainly reigned with humility – no one to this day has much of an idea what she felt about policy (though she had a very warm relationship with Harold Wilson and a very cold one with Margaret Thatcher, for what it’s worth). Unlike the kings of Israel, she was the titular head of the Church of England, but she never wielded power in that arena.

But what about the horses, and the silver? Shortly before she took the throne in 1952, her rapidly diminishing empire had spanned about a quarter of the globe. The sun literally did not set on it. Forbes estimates that the net worth of the royal family exceeds $28 Billion! Her estate is in possession of looted gems and has benefited from centuries of unspeakable plunder and oppression. It was only during her reign that the royal family was made to pay income taxes. The monarchy costs British taxpayers over $100 million a year. The queen herself owned about 100 horses. Elizabeth (Warren, that is) would have a field day taxing the heck out of her. And let’s not get started on Prince Andrew.

So as King Charles III assumes the throne – and we sincerely wish him well – one recommends he brush the dust off that copy of the Torah and carefully consider the moral cost of being more than a tenth as wealthy as Elon Musk. The new king should undertake a massive restructuring of the royal estate, giving away most of the royal family’s wealth to the underserved; returning looted treasures to former colonial powers; and allowing public ownership of most of the family’s many properties.

Queen Elizabeth herself was regarded the world over with great affection, but the notion that the monarchy is a bloated anachronism deserves attention. Perhaps her successor can buttress the legitimacy of the monarchy by making sure he and his family live more simply. God may have appointed him, but the people have a say over whether he continues to do so. Shavua Tov.


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