Tuesday, 8 December 2009

17. A King to Write a Scroll of Law

--> TB Sanhedrin 21b: “When he goes to battle, it will be found with him; when he returns, it will return with him. When he sits in judgment, it will be with him; when he sits to eat, it will be beside him.”
This mitzvah addresses an important, but not quite revelational, fact: the king is human.
As a human, the king is susceptible to such human weaknesses as conceit, stubbornness and materialism. The great power that is inherited with the throne would, arguably, make any man particularly prone to the kinds of flaws that reflect exaggerated self-aggrandizement.
For this reason, the king writes for himself a Torah scroll and carries the scroll with him wherever he goes. This scroll acts as a constant reminder, to keep him aware of his humanity and his subservience to God.
This type of commandment is not uncommon. Many Torah laws are said to be directed at Imperfect Man. Even if you do not agree with the Rambam's belief that it is possible to have a gezeirah on the de'oraitha level, it is not irregular for a mitzvah to be considered essentially designed to give the flawed Jew an instruction manual for proper behaviour in a given circumstance.
Still, we accept that our humanity should not be seen as an excuse to strive for anything less than perfection. These laws are instituted to assist Man in responding to, but certainly not for the sake of preserving, his imperfections.
This is the classic approach to this mitzvah, and it is the classic approach to many mitzvoth.
Unfortunately, whenever it is suggested that the purpose underlying a mitzvah is human imperfection, the mitzvah takes on the role of walking stick, designed exclusively in response to unfortunate or undesired circumstances. Here, for example, we focus on the king's inadequacies, more concerned with the king we likely will have rather than with the king we actually want to have.
The result of this approach is that Torah-observant Jews view themselves as inherently diseased and decrepit, worthy of existence only because they adhere to the strict regimen presented by the Torah. This view disregards tzelem elokim, that we were crafted in the Image of God, that there is something valuable about the human qua human. We have the capacity to outgrow the walking stick; there is an existence wherein we do not lean on Torah but rather rise alongside it.
Let us examine this possibility by imagining three levels of kingship:
1. The king who does not respond to the Torah scroll. With or without scroll in hand, this king responds the same way. He is immune to the effects of the Torah. This king is beyond help—even with the walking stick, he can't walk. Such a king should never rule the Jewish people.

2. The king who will respond differently with the Torah in hand. This is the king from the classic approach: he needs the Torah scroll to keep him aware of his own humanity and to keep his predilection towards greed and arrogance in check. This can be compared to the man who cannot walk unassisted but responds positively to a walking stick.

3. The king who responds properly with or without the Torah scroll in hand—the man who walks fine without the assistance of a walking stick.

The third category appears to describe the king most removed from imperfection, and one can wonder whether such a king is obligated to write and carry a Torah scroll for anything other than ceremonial reasons.

It is tempting to assume that the best possible king is this third-category king. But this mitzvah may indicate differently. Perhaps the classic approach reflects only one side of this mitzvah, the side that applies to Imperfect Man. On the opposite side is the ideal king, the king that we all want, and this mitzvah may have equal relevancy there.
Consider the direction given to mothers flying with young children: the woman is instructed, in case of an emergency, to put the mask on herself first and then to assist her child. In other words, the mother is instructed to override her natural maternal instinct. Like with the king, we can assume three kinds of mothers:
1. The mother who ignores this direction and assists her baby first.

2. The mother who instinctively is driven to help her baby first but responds to the direction and puts her own mask on first.

3. The mother who does not require the directions and realizes on her own that the logical thing to do is to help herself first.

It might be assumed that the third mother is the best mother: without any external assistance, she is able to properly care for her child.

But we have to ask ourselves: do we really want a world populated by mothers like the kind described in category three? While the natural maternal instinct may at times lead a woman astray, wouldn’t we prefer mothers that need to be told to assist themselves first to mothers that make this assessment on their own? Mothers in the second category, though dependent, more closely resemble the ideal mother than the mothers described in the third category. This mother cares for her child in a uniquely maternal way, and that is particularly what we look for in a mother: that she is good at being a mother.
Something similar applies here: the ideal king is the king who needs the Torah scroll in his arms. As with the maternal instinct, the king-instinct should be of a certain character. We want our kings to be, in a word, kingly. This instinct, though ideal, does not always direct the king along the proper path. This is why he carries the Torah. We do not want a king in battle (or in judgment, or at a meal) who would act the same with or without the Torah in hand. We want our kings to feel indestructible and all-powerful. This is crucial to the king-consciousness. We do not want kings who resist this sensation: such men, though they do not require the Torah scroll in hand, are not meant to be kings.
Economists long-ago recognized the deleterious effects of complete independence. (Yissachar and Zevulun came to similar conclusions.) The mitzvoth have a role to play in assisting the imperfect. But this should not be seen as their limit. Quite possibly, there is a message in the mitzvah that will help to define the ideal. And it may be different than what we would assume to be the ideal. Dependency should not be confused with imperfection—it can arise out of weakness, but it can also arise out of strength. The former kind of dependency is to be avoided, but the latter can be a good thing, allowing mothers to be mothers and kings to be kings. In accepting that the mitzvoth are not designed exclusively for the weak, but are designed specifically to compel the strong to be even stronger, we challenge ourselves as Torah observant Jews to excel and move beyond the cowering archetype of the Feeble Believer.


Mackenzie said...

Truly a breathtaking blog post. I am traveling, and currently feel uprooted. However, this blog focuses me. Thank you.

You write that: "such men, though they do not require the Torah scroll in hand, are not meant to be kings."

However, it seemed to me that your blog implies that all of us, as Torah observant Jews, should carry a Torah scroll in hand... that all of us are "strong and should be even stronger." Do I read you correctly?

Are we all commanded to carry the Torah scroll in hand, whether we are or are not Kings? Or, are we, as we are Torah observant Jews, meant to view ourselves as royalty?

In other words, do you speak to only those whose instinct is for greatness? If so, what of those whose natural instinct is to serve? How then should one read the Gemara - is it relevant to him? And if so, how?

Chai Hecht said...

Mackenzie: Thank you - I can't think of a much greater purpose for my writing than to increase focus.

Your point is interesting, especially in light of the next mitzvah, which is the commandment that every Jew write for himself a Torah scroll. While some commentators (if I remember correctly) believe that the king can fulfill both commandments with one scroll, others state that this mitzvah (17) obligates the king to write an ADDITIONAL scroll, so that in total he writes two scrolls.

But the essence of your point has to do with the interaction of Person and Torah in general. And it is a sensitive topic. At its heart is the requirement to appraise yourself honestly--a largely impossible task since you must interpret yourself through yourself (what alternative do we have?). At the same time, the 'objective Truth' of the Torah is filtered through your own eyes.

I do believe that the Torah has the capacity to take the weak to a position of strength and then, from there, to further empower the strong. But how do you know if you should consider yourself weak or strong?

Perhaps this is a valid, though clearly over-simplified, test: if all you could rely on was your instincts, where would you go?

I wish you well on your travels and hope you return from them safe and strong.

Mackenzie said...

Thank you for your response.

The next mitzvah is very clarifying for my question. So is the commentators on the obligation of the king. Thank you.

What a strange thing it is to evaluate oneself. And yet, without self-evaluation, we are so easily lost in Torah.

A few times Rabbi Hecht has asked me how I feel, personally, before answering a question for me.

Your answer emphasizes the extreme importance of knowing oneself. I like your question about instincts. I will have to think about that... but not too much...:) Thank you.

And thank you for your traveling wishes. I believe that the Torah from NISHMA will help carry me through safe and strong.