Parshat Shoftim 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Shoftim 5777

Shabbat Shalom.

 

I was inspired today by MY old friend Jack Reimer who wrote a sermon, “What Should We Wish for our New President.”

 

Aside: I call Jack an “old friend” not because he’s old or I want to make him feel old…but because he has been a mentor and a friend for a long time. Longer than I actually know him. Let me tell you something, Jack…I knew of you from my earliest days reading Jewish “stuff,” articles in Conservative Judaism, and then as a rabbinical student and as a young rabbi, I began to read your sermons. And I was deeply touched by them. You had the capacity to touch very deep places in people’s hearts. You could write and talk about human and family relationships in the most profoundly, meaningful ways. Yours, perhaps, was the only sermon I would read…and cry.

 

Well then, shortly after being ordained, I drove from my first mid-western pulpit to visit by brother and sister-in-law. She worked as the educational director at B’nai Amoonah, one of the great shuls in the U.S. You were there as a rabbi in residence. I met you, I heard you preach…for a young rabbi, for me, that moment was like meeting Mickey Mantle! And then you got to know my kids and then we discovered our mutual love for the seminary and some of its incredible teachers…and our special attachment to Morty Leifman z”l.

 

Coming here and finding you in the community was a gift. And the fact that you come here and listen to me preach…is simply humbling.

 

L’chvod HaRav!

 

Anyway, Jack wrote this piece on what we should wish for our new president, and I will borrow some from it, b’shem amro, and I will talk about a few other things…

 

I remember growing up, my rabbi used to talk about civil rights and the overlap with politics and candidates and he did so unabashedly. And…he never lost his job. It was because he spoke from the place of a tradition and values that came from the Torah and the prophets and the rabbis…

 

I remember when my rabbi spoke about the immorality of the war in Vietnam. And he did not get fired. He spoke from a place of the tradition. He invoked the great Martin Luther King, Jr., and he quoted Abraham Joshua Heschel and he simply thought that Seymour Siegel was wrong. And he said that. And he didn’t lose his job.

 

It’s not like that for rabbis anymore.

 

They are personally attacked for stating their understanding of the important issues of our time. You know I have experienced that. Jewish leaders all over experience that. I know a federation leader who, when asked to take a position on something, responded…it doesn’t make a difference if it’s right or wrong, our donors won’t tolerate that.

 

There is a rabbi in Texas right now that has recently returned from a trip to Israel. He didn’t want to give his congregation a Hollywood version of Israel…it was not a trip for fundraising purposes. He wanted them to learn about Israel and its challenges, and so he took them to the West bank. Not only that, they stopped at the memorial to Yassir Arafat…

 

No, I don’t know if that was planned or the Palestinian guide and bus driver snuck it up on them, but when he returned, his job was in question.

 

Learning, education, and the expression of values has been subsumed to institutional power, fundraising and its influences. Poor us. We are all cheated…I may do this again for the big crowd on the High Holy Days.

I have some very good news for you- I’m not speaking about Johnson, or Stein; I’m not going to speak about Secretary Clinton or Mr. Trump. The presidential election will be over in two more months!

 

But certain things will remain. And one will have to do with the question of the nature of leadership…

 

What is that we should want from a president?

 

My guess is that the things that we would wish for the new president is that he or she should build strong alliances with other countries, so that the nation will be secure, and that he or she should succeed in creating a strong economy, so that our nation will prosper. Aren’t these the things that we would like to see our president achieve in the next four years? Yes?

 

These imply an effective and strong foreign policy, a strong military, a strong middle class, jobs…

 

You agree?

 

What I wish to do is not think about this in terms of today or tomorrow’s election. I want to think about this in terms of our Torah and its rules, but more importantly, the values it imparts…

 

You see, I think if you read the Torah and see it as a blueprint for the details of your life today, then you are not in the right place.

But if you read the Torah and see it as an expression of fundamental VALUES, then you are in the right place!

 

Undoubtedly, it is a guide to behaviors which express those values or lead to those values, but that’s another sermon…

 

This week, Moses, our teacher in this week’s Torah reading, is giving us rules, a guideline for our leader.

 

Listen to them.

Think about them.

You may consider them totally outmoded.

You may consider them pointing to important values that are still quite relevant.

 

Believe it or not, Moses comes out in this week’s sedra against the king seeking a strong military, against the king striving for a strong network of alliances with other countries, and against the king creating a strong economy.

 

In today’s Torah reading, in which Moses speaks of the laws that will apply to the king, the first thing he says is that you don’t really have to have a king – you have God. But he knows people are people, and they will want a king like other nations. So there are conditions.

 

The first condition is that your king must be ‘mikerev achicha’ – literally he must be one of your brothers. He must be native born. America has the same rule, by the way. The constitution provides that in order to be president, a person must be native born. That is why Alexander Hamilton was not eligible to be president. And that’s the nonsense of the recent birther movement. In all the other countries of the ancient world, the king was considered a god. In Israel, he was to be a brother. The rulers of Egypt and of the other countries of the Middle East were considered Divine Beings, who came down to earth in order to rule.

 

But in Israel the king could make no such claim. We had no founding fathers. We only had a founding brother, one who came from the midst of the people, a king who was human, like all the rest of us. That was the first rule of kingship that Moses set forth.

 

The second rule of kingship that Moses set forth was that the king was forbidden to go back to Egypt in order to acquire horses. He wasn’t to have too many horses. Horses in the ancient world were like tanks and planes and missiles are today. They were sophisticated weapons, and therefore if a king wanted to have a powerful army, he would have to go back down to Egypt in order to purchase them. Moses says, “God has warned you not to go back to Egypt, and not to send people back to Egypt in order to buy horses, for that is not right.”

 

Why not?

 

If you don’t have horses, you can’t have a strong army. How then can God command Israel not to buy horses? It is as if God was telling the king not to depend for his safety and for his country’s safety on weaponry alone. Power is not only about tanks and planes and guns – nations can worship their military.

 

We don’t. We need them. We use them. But there must be a balance. I’m sure that you remember Eisenhower’s warning against the military industrial complex. A nation where all of its growth would be dependent on military spending and then the worship of militaristic nationalism.

 

The third commandment that Moses issues is that the king should not have many wives.

 

Again, why not?

 

In the ancient world, how did a king make alliances? He did so by marrying the daughter of a neighboring king or by giving his daughter to the son of a neighboring king. That is what they did in through the Middle Ages. If the king of England and the king of France were machetonim, they would work together in partnership and they would not go to war against each other.

 

So why does Moses forbid the king from taking many wives? It is as if he was telling the king not to depend for his safety and for his country’s safety on alliances with foreign powers.

 

The fourth rule that Moses sets down is that the king shall not pile up silver and gold.

 

Again, why not?

 

The traditional meforshim, or explanation, said that silver and gold were then, as they are today, crucial to the economy of a nation. What Moses was evidently saying was that the king and the country should not depend for their safety on a strong economy. He was saying that the more wealth a country possesses, and the more envied it is, the more likely it is that another country will try to conquer it in order to seize its wealth.

 

But I also believe this is about power becoming out of balance. What does that mean – the king with too much power…whether its wealth or military or women can abuse it? Because power is destructive and needs to be balanced, too much money in the hand of too few leads to revolution and destruction.

 

But here’s where Moses says something really interesting, and truly important. He says that when the king is established upon his throne, the first thing he should do is write a copy of the Torah. He should do so in the presence of the Kohanim and the Leviim. That, in itself, is surprising. Perhaps Moses assumes that the king will know how to read and write. That is not something to be taken for granted.

 

Moses assumes that a king of Israel will be literate, and yes wise. And then Moses says that the king shall read in this Torah all the days of his life “so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, and observe faithfully all the words of this teaching.”

 

Why? “Livilti rom livavo mey-achiv” – so that his heart will not be uplifted over his brothers.

 

And if he lives this way, “ya-arich yamim al mamlachto, hu uvanav bikerev Yisrael” – then he and his descendants will reign long in the midst of Israel.

 

Because learning leads to understanding and understanding leads to humility and humility will not accept the abuse of people or power!

 

What will be the key to the survival of the king upon his throne according to Moses?

 

It will not be the size of his army, nor the number of his alliances with foreign powers. It will not be the amount of his wealth. What will ensure his sovereignty will be if he writes a copy of the Torah and keeps it at his side, and if he learns from it all the days of his life and if he obeys what it says.

 

And so I want to ask: What do you think about the king that he should learn from this Torah? That his people are his brothers, especially the weak and the poor and the vulnerable? Thirty-six times the Torah says, “Thou shalt love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thirty six times the Torah bids us to have empathy for those who are in distress, for we were once where they are now. This is the lesson that the king must learn according to Moses if his sovereignty is to be secure.

 

This is the political contribution that matters:

 

Our leaders should be wise and humble, and not try to gain unbounded wealth or influence.

 

They should see themselves as one of the people. Mikerev achiv! You need that to feel the pain of others.

 

Our leaders need to know where they come from and where the nation comes from.

 

Our great leader Moses once referred to himself as an omen yonek – like a nursing father. How can a person be both at the same time – a father and a mother? Think about what that means.

 

Compassionate, willing to feed, soft, and setting boundaries and rules and knowing when to be tough… There’s so much in this Torah…We have to learn it and AS IMPORTANTLY, KEEP IT ALIVE AND ALLOW IT TO SPEAK TO US!

 

Shabbat Shalom.