Sermon: Shabbat Shoftim – Leading with Torah by your side

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 September 2022

As Liz Truss – we assume it will be she – enters Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time this coming Tuesday, having ‘kissed the hand’ at Balmoral, it is interesting to imagine what she might take in with her.

As she is greeted at the door of No 10 and goes in for her first briefing from the Cabinet Secretary, what will she want around her? What will her team be putting in her new office from which she will govern for the next two years?

An ‘In Liz we Truss’ mug, perhaps?
Some new pens?
A picture of Mrs Thatcher to sit on her desk?

Or, perhaps – in the interest of balance, it will be Rishi Sunak bringing his £180 smart mug and sliders to wear in the office.

Whichever, we can only hope they will also be carrying a new journal, full of hitherto unshared plans to respond to the extraordinary challenges that face us at this time of national crisis.

This morning’s parasha, Shoftim, presents another vision, another idea of what a leader should carry with her – or, in Torah, him – as they begin their new duties.

A little after the section we read this morning, we are presented with the rules for appointing a monarch, the one place in the Torah in which the institution of an Israelite monarchy appears.

Begrudgingly, the Torah permits the people to set a king over themselves – something which we see in practice in our haftarah. The bible is concerned at giving so much power to one person. As a result, this passage in Deuteronomy is an unusually negative piece of text – the king must not keep many horses, must not take many wives, must not amass silver and gold in excess.

And then, we are told,
“As the King is seated on his royal throne, he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah… and it will be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life.”

Rather than a new mug, or pens, the King, according to Deuteronomy, needs to have with him in his new office, mishneh ha-torah ha-zot- a copy of this Torah.

Now, it is not entirely clear what this means.
The Temple Scroll found at Qumran, which dates to the first century BCE, suggests that ha-torah ha-zot, this teaching, this text, was a different piece of writing – a sort of proto-constitution laying out a king’s constitutional powers and limitations. Elsewhere it is suggested that this refers to the text of Deuteronomy – historically known to have been a separate distinct text.

But in rabbinic Judaism, the Sages understood Ha-Torah Ha-Zot more broadly – not only as a legal constitutional text, or a section of Torah, but as a full Torah scroll.

In the Mishnah, which dates to about 200CE we are told v’choteiv lo sefer torah lishmo – he shall write a Torah scroll, lishmo – ‘for his own sake’, literally ‘in his own name’. The Talmud explains this further, stressing that the writing anew at the time of accession is important – ‘even if his parents have left him a Sefer Torah’ it states, ‘it is proper that he should write one of his own’. This is not a task that can be outsourced to others, or inherited, he needs to do it himself.

This scroll, according to the rabbis, was to be a constant companion for the king in his leadership. According to the Mishnah: “When he goes out to war, he brings it out with him. When he comes in from war, he brings it in with him. When he sits in judgment, it is with him. When he reclines to eat, it is opposite him”.

But why?
What is the purpose of this personal Torah scroll accompanying the king in his leadership?

Importantly, the Torah is not there as a symbol of power; it is not a marker of the king’s divine right to rule. It’s not a magical talisman – its mere presence isn’t going to ensure success in battle. Carrying a Torah around isn’t going to make the king successful.

Rather, this Torah is written to be read. And not just symbolically.
The early midrash, Sifre Dvarim, understands the ever present nature of this Torah scroll slightly differently to the Mishnah. In language familiar to us from the Haggadah, it states:
“The days of his life” means [he should read it in] the days;
“all the days of his life” means the nights, too.

Underlying is the idea that engagement with the words of Torah will affect how the King leads, will make him a better and more successful leader of his people. The ideal it presents is of a leader who studies and learns, who is willing to evolve and develop.

The king who studies Torah will be reminded of his broader purpose – that the goal is not merely to become the leader, but to do something positive with it. The king who studies Torah will understand that there are values, ideals greater than personal ambition. The king who studies Torah will rule with awareness of the importance of justice, of truth – aware that these ideals and the rule of law, apply to him as much as his people.

Specifically, the Torah also states ‘l’vilti room l’vavo mei-echav’ – as a result of reading his Torah ‘he will not act haughtily with his people’. Reading Torah will ensure that in leadership the king does not become too insular, too self-referential, is able to see outside of himself. Torah will, perhaps, function like the slave whispering in the ear of a returning Roman general at his tribute – whispering in his ear “Memento Mori” – “remember you are mortal” – you are not a god – so that he understands he is fundamentally no different to others, should not get carried away. For, as Ellie has taught us, leadership in Torah is associated with service of the people.

Whether it be Prime Minister Truss or Prime Minister Sunak entering into Downing Street, they will have a different brief, and different powers to Israelite kings. But in many ways, their powers are greater than that of a minor Ancient Near Eastern monarch – their ability to do good, and potentially to cause damage to real people and the world – will be even greater.

So, these messages of Torah are equally applicable to them.

Like the ancient Israelite king, they need to be aware of the serious responsibility of national leadership; the importance of seeing beyond self, beyond party, beyond niche interests to serve all of the people; thoughtful of the values of justice and truth and the fundamental importance that the rule of law applies even in Downing Street.

When they enter 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, I doubt very much that either of them will be bringing a Torah scroll that they have written.
But we can only hope that they are bringing something else: a willingness to study and to listen; an openness to learning; the humility to serve the needs of all the people in a time of great national need.