Are you a Chief or are you an Indian?© - Rabbi David Baum

Are you a Chief or are you an Indian?©
Parashat Shoftim, 2015/5775
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

David, “Are you a Chief or are you an Indian?” 

I remember that question like it was yesterday.  I was asked this question years ago, during my time in high school when I applied to be part of a highly coveted group called the Executive Board of Student Government. 

Keep in mind, the mascot of our school was a Confederate Colonel so it wasn’t the most politically correct question. 

Nevertheless, they were asking me – do you see yourself as a leader or a follower? 

There are a couple of ways to answer the question – one can say, there are times when I am a Chief, there are times when I’m an Indian, meaning, I’m not always a leader, sometimes I follow.  You can say, I’m an Indian, but then you’ll never get the job.  Or, you can say, I’m a chief, I’m a leader; which might have been what they wanted me to say.  Kids think leaders have confidence – they tell their people what to do because they know best.  I don’t know what I answered – but I didn’t get the job. 

What does it mean to be a leader in our eyes?  Right now, we are in an interesting time when politicians are vying for the ultimate ‘king’ position – the presidency. 
So what qualities should we be looking for in the ultimate leader?  And, what qualities should we emulate in ourselves?  Should we be ‘Indians’ or ‘Chiefs’? 

Here is what I’m advocating for:  We need a Chief who thinks he’s not worthy to be a Chief, but is a Chief in Indian’s clothing. 

Today, I’d like to look at the qualities of a leader from our parashah as we learn about the first Jewish King.

Shofteim 17:15 – 16:  "If, after you have come into the land that the Lord your God is going to give you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you say, 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that surround me,' you may certainly set a king over yourself, one whom the Lord your God chooses" (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)

Something interesting I noticed right away is that the Torah is saying, if you want to be like the other nations, when the Torah, on so many occasions says, we are different.  How different will we be if we have a king like everyone else? 

When we think about kings in the ancient world, we think figures with unbridled power, almost touched by God.  Here we see that God will choose the king, but the Torah goes in a very different direction – it tells us how we are going to be different, how our king will not be like the others.  Rather than say power the king will yield, what they could do, the Torah tells us three things that the king cannot do:  the king cannot not “acquire great numbers of horses,” or “take many wives” or “accumulate large amounts of silver and gold” (17: 16-17).  And the Torah adds something really interesting, the one thing he should do: he has to have a copy of the Torah next to him whenever he sits on the throne, and he has to read it, and observe the teachings and laws. 

Let me first talk about the things he cannot do:  get lots of horses, take many wives, and accumulate massive amount of wealth; and why. 

“16Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”’

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay comments that this regards the king’s personal entourage representing royal self-aggrandizement, and he points to David’s sons, Avshalom and Adonijah’s use of them.  He writes, “In war, reliance on them encourages the king to feel that he is self-sufficient and not dependent on God.” 

“17And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.”

Deuteronomy worries that vast numbers of wives will undermine the king's loyalty to God.  The reader of Tanakh thinks immediately of King Solomon, the wisest of men who nevertheless lost his way:  "He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned his heart away" (1 Kings 11:3)

These three restrictions guard against a king becoming too self-sufficient and thinking that he is like God. 

So he must do the following to guard against this: 

“18 When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. 19 Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. 20 Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows (m’eichav) or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.”

The Torah, or the law book, is not there for the king to be a judge, but to remind the king that he can be judged, that is not above the law.  This is how we are different than our neighbors - Jeffrey Tigay notes that "in Mesopotamia the monarchy was viewed as an institution created by the gods early in human history and practically indispensable for the welfare of society.  The king was the lawgiver.  He was inspired by the gods with the wisdom to make laws, but the laws themselves were his.  In Egypt, the king was believed to be a God, and he was the law."

Finally, the Torah states, “Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows (m’eichav) – literally, his brother,” and the king does not rule above Israel, Al Israel, but B’Kerev Israel, the midst of Israel.  In other words, he is one of them, like an ordinary citizen:  even though he sits on the throne, he must remain humble. 

Finally, the Jewish king doesn’t know it all – the text states that the King must read the Torah all the days of his life, not just for laws, but for knowledge.  The Torah admits here, the king is not perfect, the king is not the smartest man in the world, but the king strives to learn everyday. 

The Jewish king is not untouchable, far from it; the Jewish king is humble, realizes his place, and is constantly striving for perfection through learning and self-reflection. 

This week, the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Shultz, wrote an editorial titled, America Deserves a Servant Leader.  In it, he addresses the rumors about him running for President, saying that they are untrue, but he states what he feels our country needs:  Our country deserves a president humble enough to see leadership not as an entitlement but as a privilege.

He ends with a story: “A decade ago, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the former Rosh of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, a widely respected rabbi in Israel. As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further. “I’ve never been closer than this,” the rabbi told me. Astounded, I asked why.  “You go,” he said. “I’m not worthy.”

We can only have one king, only one president, but all of us have the ability to be leaders.  The Jewish king teaches us that to be wealthy does not mean that one must have a harem, horses and wealth – a true leader is Sameach B’Helko – is content with his share.  The Jewish king teaches us who is wise – HaLomed M’kol Adam.  The Jewish king teaches us how he is honorable, because he honors his brother. 

May we all has a piece of the Jewish king in us, so we can become better Chiefs and Indians. 





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