Be the Ruler!
What is the definition of a true leader? At the beginning of the third essay of the Kuzari, this is the very question that R’ Yehuda HaLevi had the Khazar King ask the Rabbi, but in a circuitous way. The Khazar King asked: “Tell me how saintly Jews behave.” The Rabbi responded: “A saintly person is one who is concerned with his country. He provides all its citizens with their every provision and need. He leads them justly, does not oppress any one of them, and does not give to any one of them more than their rightful share.
Thus, in his time of need they will come to his aid, and will rush to respond to him when he calls out to them. He can command them, and they will carry out his command; he can admonish them and they will accept his admonishment.” Puzzled with this response, the Kuzari challenges: “I asked you about a saintly person, not a leader!”
The Rabbi’s answer is very telling: “The saintly person is a leader. All of his senses and attributes – both spiritual and physical – submit themselves to his command. He thus leads them just like a real world leader, as it says (Pr. 16:32), ‘He who rules his spirit is greater than one who captures a city.’ He has shown that he is fit to govern – that were he to rule over a country, he would preside over it justly just as he has done with his own body and soul.”
Appointing a king
In this light, it should not be surprising that a number of commentaries look at the Torah’s commandment to appoint a king over the nation (17:14-20) as a metaphor for appointing a ruler over oneself, a guiding principle that allows one to lead a life of discipline, dignity, and integrity. We’ll extract just a few points from Rav Chaim Vital’s extensive use of this metaphor.
“When you come into the [Promised] Land…” There comes a point when we reach a certain age of maturity, that moment in your life when you realize you need to get serious and put aside all the distractions and entertainments of your youth. You will have “arrived” at the place you need to be in order to make important life decisions.
“You will say, I shall appoint a king over myself, like all the nations around me.” You notice that your peers have started to get serious about life. Each one has immersed himself or herself into something that preoccupies the majority of their waking life, whether it be their job, raising a family, or some other pursuit. You will realize that it’s time for you to create structure and a life plan for yourself as well.
Here the Torah admonishes us that we must choose our “king” wisely: “Appoint a king over yourself, one that Hashem selects for you. He must be from among your brethren, and you may not place a foreigner over yourself.” That is, there are many choices to make in deciding how you would like your life to be structured. Make sure that you choose the proper overarching principle that will guide your life decisions. That life code, or “king,” must be endorsed by Hashem, because it conforms to the values contained in the Torah. Don’t look at others’ choices, since their playbook may not be from the Torah. Don’t adopt a foreign value system, not “from your brethren,” to be the guiding principle of your life.
The king and his possessions
The Torah then commands the king to not have too many physical assets, and identifies three specific accumulations that the king must avoid: “He shall not amass too many horses… too many wives… too much gold and silver….” G-d is telling us: Even when you choose the right “king,” in that you have committed to live a life of Torah observance, this does not guarantee that your life will always be on the correct trajectory.
It is possible to live a “frum” life that is distorted by too much of the following: (1) “Too many horses” refers to fun activities. Even Orthodox Jews love taking vacations, playing games, and other recreational activities. When done in moderation, that’s fine. But don’t overdo it, and don’t make those moments the main focus of your life. (2) “Too many wives” refers to physical indulgences, even with your own spouse, or even when everything is glatt kosher. Eat to live, don’t live to eat at the fancy destination restaurant, for example. (3) “Too much gold and silver” doesn’t need any additional interpretation. Be happy with what you have and don’t obsess over accumulating additional wealth. “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot” (Avos 4:1).
The king and a life of Torah
“When he ascends the throne, he shall write for himself a Mishneh Torah on a scroll, in the presence of the Kohanim.” The term “Mishneh Torah,” literally, a Torah of study, means a Torah that one can absorb and apply to their own life. Make sure the Torah you study has practical applications to you and is formulated and filtered in a language that speaks to you. Study that Torah in the presence of the “Kohanim” of your generation, the teachers and rabbis whom you respect, who will help guide you in applying the Torah’s teachings to your life.
“It shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life…” Whatever you end up doing in life, whatever profession or vocation you choose, make sure that each and every day has some time carved out for Torah study. Whether it’s the Daf Yomi or even just five minutes of halakhah or mussar, reading from the Torah every day of your life will engender faith, a fear of G-d, and a commitment to continue following the precepts of the Torah through thick and thin.
“[He shall do all this] so that his heart not become haughty over his brethren… and in order that his rule will be of lengthy days, for both himself and his children in the midst of Israel.” The key to a successful life is the trait of humility. Even when you’ve “made it” professionally or financially, don’t allow your successes to convince you that you’re any better than your peers. If you live by these principles, then both you and your children will live a long and happy life, and will do so within the Jewish community.
Ourselves as king or our domains
In my travels over the last several days, I encountered a large amount of homeless people camped out in the streets. There is currently a scourge in society of people who don’t feel that they have any purpose or direction in life. They’ve basically given up on themselves and have not been able to find any redemption to their lives or reason to live with that sense of self-respect or dignity.
To me, this sight on the streets is the saddest of all human conditions. Society today has become so advanced; we’ve cured so many illnesses, and we’ve created so many luxuries and amenities that are within everyone’s grasp. But we haven’t succeeded in providing an overarching message of purpose and meaning within the life of the average citizen.
We’d be so well advised to follow the Torah’s charge. Become the king or queen that you were always meant to be! As we inch closer to the High Holidays, let’s examine the infrastructure of our lives. Have we instituted the proper priorities for ourselves and our loved ones? Are we leading disciplined lives of purpose? At the end of our lives, we all want to be remembered as people who led lives with meaning and who set a proper example for their family and friends. That’s a true king or queen.
May we ascend the throne of true royalty every day of our lives, and may this new year bring us to both personal and national Redemption, bb”a.