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.