Parshat Shoftim: Power Play

Posted on August 12, 2010 In Archives

Each week IPA staff and guest contributors take a look at the weekly parsha and discuss it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.

Politics & the Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”

With it’s commandments & teachings about kingship, governance, battlefield ethics and communal responsibility for those in need there’s no better parsha to start our new weekly blog post than Shoftim.

The Torah’s dire warnings to the king (& the populace) about too many horses, taking too much property and too many servants is checked by commanding the king to write a sefer Torah (Torah scroll), among other safeguards, in the hope this will ensure no abuse of royal power & position. (In real life, as seen throughout the later books of the bible, when this too fails, G-d was wont to send a prophet out to read Israel’s kings a divine riot act.)

Man’s psyche didn’t change much over time. King George III was supposedly told that the American rebels believed that after the war, General Washington would return to his farm. If so, the British monarch reportedly replied, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington remains one of history’s few examples to step down from a seat of power after winning it in battle. What King George and the man who turned down (maybe, if we believe the myth) the title of King George both knew was what Lord Acton knew: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Which makes the juxtaposition of the very next topic in the parsha curious. It describes the gifts given to the kohanim & leviim, the priests & levites. They are provided land for their homes, fields for their crops and flocks and gifts from the masses.

Why does this literally follow the warnings of kingly overreach?

Perhaps the lesson is that not only kings must worry about becoming tainted by power, but so too the “entrenched” bureaucracy. Kohanim & leviim are fed off the gifts and largesse of the populace. Perhaps the Torah warns us the corrupting influences of power do not only come by executive command, force of law, eminent domain to seize land, conscript servants and soldiers, or tax profits and production. Corruption, the Torah is suggesting, can seep in slowly, when a class of people so removed from their brothers for special work, live apart and are insulated from the immediate affects and downturns in an economy, and become used to gifts and a standard of living.

Again, the psyche of modern man may be no different. In a Politico poll recently, 45% of Washingtonians surveyed see the economy & the country heading in the right direction compared to 25% of real Americans. As Jim VandeHei and Zachary Abrahamson write, Washington’s “governing class” is far removed from the rest of America:

They write that the “massive expansion of government” in recent years “has basically guaranteed a robust job market for policy professionals, regulators and contractors for years to come. The housing market, boosted by the large number of high-income earners in the area, many working in politics and government, is easily outpacing the markets in most of the country.”

Perhaps this is why the Torah saw fit to warn of corruption by a powerful monarch right before commanding the people on the taxes, or make the gifts they provide the priestly caste. It was a shot across the bow to the priests to always remember whom they serve, to whose service they are obligated, and how they must feel about both the Divine and the human.

Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.

Posted by: Howie Beigelman, Deputy Director of Public Policy.