This week we complete our consideration of the mitzvot that relate directly to the administration of justice. We will focus on Divine guidance regarding leaders and the conduct of war. Finally, we will spend the conclusion of the hour reflecting on the lessons about justice that mean the most to us.
1. Read Deuteronomy 17:15-17
Deuteronomy 17 15 You can indeed appoint over you a king that the Lord your God selects. You can appoint over you a king who is one of your fellow Israelites. You are not allowed to appoint over you a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. 16 That granted, the king must not acquire too many horses, and he must not return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, because the Lord told you: “You will never go back by that road again.” 17 The king must not take numerous wives so that his heart doesn’t go astray. Nor can the king acquire too much silver and gold.
Q1. How does this text apply to the actual kings of Israel so many years ago, to leaders in our own day, and to us who are indeed "sovereigns" in so many ways in our own lives? Do you see expected balance here? Describe.
I want us to think about these mitzvot on multiple levels - how they might apply to the actual kings of Israel so many years ago, how they might apply to leaders in our own day, and finally how they apply to each of us who are indeed sovereigns in many ways of our own lives.
A. A little background first. Our tradition suggests much hostility to the idea of a king. Having kings was the practice of heathen lands. There was resistance to a monarchy early in our story, for example, even apparently from the prophet, Samuel. In the mitzvot, most argue (though Chinuch disagrees) the appointment of a king was not mandatory, and, as we have already discussed and will discuss more, there is great care to limit and discipline the authority of the king.
Yet, the mitzvot do sanction a king, and one gets the sense that there is both a Divine and human purpose for a king (and, in later times perhaps, some other form of sovereign or extended civil government). Do you see that? If so, what are such purposes?
(We have communal needs for leadership that go beyond the work of priests and judges. We may require a more central authority that can uniquely unite people, provide discipline, and keep a nation stable and growing. Further, this sovereign could play a vital role in defending the nation and conducting war, if needed.
The mitzvot do not delve much into the precise role of the king or details of his functions and how they are to be handled. The best we get is a sense of the purpose of the sovereign and perhaps some notions about the relationship between the sovereign and the people. Crucially, again, we do see more explicitly the importance of the limitations and constraints that are to be placed on the sovereign, and we’ll discuss why in a moment.)
B. Let’s recall our discussion of the requirement that the king is expected to write, keep and observe a Scroll of the Law. Even, and especially, the sovereign must know and live true to the understanding that there is a greater Sovereign than He, to Whom his knee must bend in duty and service. How might the sovereign act in accordance with these duties?
(By tradition, he was to show humility, grace, and mercy to all, including those of the lowest rank, and concern for his subjects and their needs. He was to speak gently and lead the people tolerantly and patiently as would a shepherd with his flock. Yet, he was also to live true to the mitzvot in ways that require strength, discipline, and duty to the principles of justice and righteousness and adherence to the law. The balance we’ve discussed throughout our exploration between love and mercy on the one hand and justice and righteousness on the other would be one the king is especially bound to maintain in his service to God and nation.)
What about these other restraints on powerful sovereigns?
(These further restraints are intended to curb the inclination of the powerful sovereign to grab excessive power or wealth.
Owning many horses, a sovereign could exert inappropriately great power against the people or others (and be tempted to return to Egypt, literally or figuratively). Taking many wives, he could show a spouse’s heart to none and likely be callous to his people as well. Amassing great wealth, a sovereign would likely have overtaxed the people and/or become haughty over his people, thus evidencing again his greater interest in his own welfare than theirs.)
B. Now that we have reviewed the mitzvot relating to the sovereign, have you gleaned any guidance that might be helpful to you as the sovereign over your life and the decisions you must make within its realm?
2. Read Exodus 22:28
Exodus 22: 28 Don’t say a curse against God, and don’t curse your people’s chief.
Q2. To what extent must we respect and honor the leader, and to what extent are there limits on that respect and honor?
(This refers both to a judge and a king, according to the sages. The basic idea is that the nation needs leadership, and leadership requires that the people be bound to, and respectful of, the leader. This prohibition is against the emotional and often angry nature of a curse, not speech of a rational sort. Of course, it also assumes that the leader is appointed and serves in a manner consistent with the requirements of the mitzvot. Then, just as one would not curse God, one should refrain from cursing the leader who serves God and the people.
What should happen if there is a break in that pattern is open to consideration and discussion. Surely, we get a good dose of kings straying from God’s path in Kings as well as subsequently, and to our very day. We’ll leave for another time a discussion of how exactly this mitzvah is applied in the case of a king who does not serve in sync with the mitzvot.)
3. Read Deuteronomy 20:1-9
Deuteronomy 20 1 When you march out to battle your enemies and you see horses, chariots, and a fighting force larger than yours, don’t be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, the one who brought you up from Egypt, is with you. 2 As you advance toward the war, the priest will come forward and will address the troops. He will say to them: “Listen, Israel: Right now you are advancing to wage war against your enemies. Don’t be discouraged! Don’t be afraid! Don’t panic! Don’t shake in fear on account of them, your God is going with you to fight your enemies for you and to save you.” 5 The officials will also say to the troops: “Is there anyone here who has just built a new house but hasn’t yet dedicated it? He can leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the war and someone else would dedicate the house. 6 Or is there anyone here who has planted a vineyard but hasn’t yet put it to good use? He can leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the battle and someone else would use the vineyard. 7 Or is there anyone here who is engaged but not yet married? He may leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the battle and someone else would marry his fiancée.” 8 The officials will continue to address the troops, stating: “Is there anyone here who is afraid and discouraged? He can leave and go back to his house; otherwise, his comrades might lose courage just as he has.” 9 Once the officials have completed their speech to the troops, the army commanders will assume leadership of the forces.
Q3. We¹ve already learned of limits that constrain us in war. Recall the discussion of the requirement to give the besieged city the right to surrender before war is waged and the prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees. What new limits do we learn here? And what new do we learn about balance that God requires of us in our view of war?
We conclude our study of the mitzvot related directly to justice issues by looking at guidance concerning the conduct of war. We have already studied certain of these limits in the mitzvot related to the proper treatment of enemies in war. What more do we learn here? Let’s break it down.
(A. First, the king may move forward immediately in a war of necessity or emergency but must get consensus among the leadership to go forward in “non-obligatory” wars. This sounds a little bit like some of the de facto requirements in our own nation. How?
(The authority of the king to go forward “when commanded by God” suggests a need to move quickly on behalf of the safety and welfare of the community. This is one of the key reasons to have a king, as we have discussed. But the requirement of consensus or buy-in helps assure that the commitment to go to war is shared and that the burden is agreed to across the spectrum in a community. Whether the war turns out well or poorly, this sense of shared decision-making is surely healthy and right.)
B. The idea of the priest pulling off the battlefield soldiers who are not ready to fight for the reasons mentioned makes sense. We would only want those strong of heart in battle for purposes of morale and efficacy.
1. It’s fascinating that those who haven’t had the basic experiences of a newly mature life are exempt? Why?
(Perhaps they are entitled to it, as the young should, in life. Or they don’t yet have a full sense of what they’re duty-bound to fight for and thus should experience the making and living out of these basic commitments before going to war. Or they should have an opportunity to fulfill the various mitzvot associated with these key activities of life before facing life and death moments of battle.)
2. Why does the priest play his designated role?
(I suspect soldiers would want and get strength from the fact that a person of God is there to bring God’s nearness and support at this difficult time of challenge, risk, duty, and purpose for the nation and people/warriors of faith.)
4. Read Deuteronomy 23:12-13
Deuteronomy 23 12 “You must have a designated area outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. 13 Each of you must have a spade as part of your equipment. Whenever you relieve yourself, dig a hole with the spade and cover the excrement.
Q4. What in the world is this here for?
(While wars should be waged vigorously and aggressively for the triumph of our people and way of life in what is inherently a very messy and even ugly enterprise, we are instructed that even our warriors are human beings and ought not act like animals. Further, the war is in service of God and the prayers and comments of the priest in advance of battle are said to God. One doesn’t conduct such activity in the midst of filth.
As we conclude this chapter on justice, what are our takeaways from these mitzvot? What Divine guidance will we remember and use in our lives long after our study is completed?