I’ve been tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students for years. I teach them to chant the Hebrew and we wrestle with the meaning of the text like a couple of regular old rabbis. It’s the best.
One of my current students is studying Deuteronomy 17, which includes a section about how a king should govern. Usually it’s one of those passages that seems fairly abstract for a preteen, like the chapters about leprosy or sacrifices. But since we began studying this portion in September, she and I have watched in slowly deepening horror as the daily news echoes the ancient words.
Our early-fall jokes about how the Torah almost seems to be warning Candidate Trump have morphed into horror as we watch the words transform into dystopian reality under President Trump.
The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself…He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. (Deut. 17:14-16)
Many wives? Check. Large amounts of silver and gold? Check. Heart led astray? Certainly.
The power-hungry, unwise, unjust ruler is an eternal type and, unfortunately, a recurring reality. It is a human problem, not specific to the ancient world or the modern world. We learned about it in history class; we learned about it in Hebrew school; and now we are learning about it in real life. It’s our turn to live through it, and our turn to fight.
After the Torah tells a ruler what not to do, it moves on to positive suggestions for leadership. Patriarchal gender-bias notwithstanding, I think this is one of the most beautiful wisdom texts ever written:
When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel. (Deut. 18-20).
The king earns the right to reign by copy a scroll of the Torah, carrying it with him, reading it every single day, in a luminous vision of leadership which integrates spiritual wisdom with worldly power.
Unfortunately, this is the opposite of our reality. The behaviors this passage warns against have been happening with eerie consistency over the past few days.
“Not consider himself better than his fellow [humans].”
A true leader must acknowledge others’ humanity. Instead, Trump enacts a de facto Muslim ban.
“[Not] turn from the law to the right or to the left.”
A true leader must use measured, thoughtful justice. Instead, Trump fires Judge Sally Yates for upholding the Constitution.
“[T]o revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law.”
A true leader maintains dedication to what is true. I’m not saying a leader has to be religious. What is true can be God, or simply a commitment to human dignity. That scroll is a symbol meaning that a ruler must always maintain his humanity, his mortality, his morality, his obligation to do right.
Tonight I draw strength from that last line:
Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
Then, and only then. Without justice, no king or President will reign for long, because people will rise up. To fight for justice and demand new leadership that reflects the better nature of our country: that is our job now.
It is our turn to fight.
The “never” part of “never again” is up to us.