Balance Of Power

The Torah takes care to limit the power of both the kingship and the priesthood, the formal institutions of leadership and governance in ancient Israel.

Commentary on Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9

Parashat Shoftim is about power. It tells how a holy people is also a people of realpolitik living out its life on the land. In ancient Israel, there were two formal institutions of governance, the executive branch and the priestly order, each with certain built-in limits of power.

A king is needed to focus and direct the state, particularly during wartime. The king’s powers are limited by the scroll of the teaching. He is commanded to make a copy of the Torah scroll for himself and keep it with him always. The teaching serves as a general constitutional framework, but there are three explicit rules that apply specifically to the king. He must not have many wives, many horses, or much gold and silver. The political, military and economic power of the king is thus limited functionally and symbolically.

The Temple serves as the locus for another leadership force. The priests and Levites manage the Temple, conduct its sacrifices, instruct the people in the details of worship and ritual purity, provide musical accompaniment, and organize the festivals. They are the preservers of sacred memory.

Their power too is limited. They are not to receive a portion when the land is divided between the tribes. They are to eat of contributions, tithes and special offerings of the people. Those charged with the task of preserving sacred memory cannot be burdened with the toil of making a living from the land. But they are also deprived of the access to power that the land entails. They, unlike their people, are not of the land and are consequently freer perhaps to dream, less shackled to horizontal limits. As it says, “They shall have no portion among their brother tribes; the Lord is their portion” (Deuteronomy 18:2).

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

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