Parshat Shoftim: The Torah, the King, the Horses and the Wives

This week my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary.  We shared a lovely dinner and talked about our memories, our kids, our life journeys, how we never imagined we would be together through a pandemic and how lucky we are that we like each other.  A relative posted one of our wedding pictures on social media with anniversary wishes —we look so young and innocent…and so well dressed.

I got my wedding gown from a wholesale factory in the garment district (apparently buying retail was simply not done back in the day).  I showed them the dress I wanted from a magazine, they took my measurements and told me I could pick up the dress two days before the wedding.  It all sounded good to me.  Once I had the dress I was told I now need shoes to go with it, a veil that matches, which of course needs the part that covers my face.  Once I have the veil worked out, I needed to decide on the headpiece for the veil…that would need to go with the dress… and the shoes… and the veil.  Now let’s talk flowers for the bouquet! I will be holding a bouquet that needs to go with the dress…and the shoes…and the veil…

The bridesmaids needed dresses and shoes and bouquets and all the bells and whistles.  Only problem was, anyone who knows me knows that I am not someone who enjoys getting involved in all these details —I was thrilled with showing the picture in the magazine, getting measured and picking up the dress just before I needed it.  I like simplicity that leads to simplicity.  Most of life never happens that way.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Israel is told about what happens when the nation decides it wants a king.  There are particular laws in place to describe what the king can’t do.  First and foremost, the king can never be a foreigner and must always be accountable to the same laws of Torah that defines the people.  In fact, the king must write his own Torah scroll so he has shaped every word, every sentence.  Interestingly, the king is prohibited from taking too many horses and too many wives.

Of all things to prohibit, horses and wives aren’t what instantly come to mind.  But when we pull back for the bigger picture, we realize the brilliance of the prohibition and the definition it provides.  Heads of government who work efficiently, quickly understand that you do not waste resources.  If I have horses, I need chariots; if I have chariots, I need warriors to drive them; if I have horses, chariots and warriors, I need campaigns to engage them.  Armed campaigns build territory and territory acquisition builds empires.  Limit the horses and you limit your army which will limit your expansion toward empire.  In other words, thrive in Israel but don’t let a king become an empire builder, that’s not what covenant is about.

Similarly, kings take wives to build political alliances and not because they are in true romantic love with each wife and build personal relationships with them.  Each wife is an alliance with her family, her nation and her king.  Wives are political chess pieces.  The more wives, the more alliances, the more strategic complexity for when you expand your territory (all those horses) and build your empire.

When we think of Jewish leadership, as described in this week’s parshah, we understand that the details in the Torah speak of the vision and its definition, and they are now essential to the picture.  Covenant details the Jewish relationship with the land of Israel and the society we build there.  It also lets us know of the temptations and human inclination towards ego, grandeur and expansion.  Limit the horses, limit the wives and thrive.

Just before my wedding anniversary this year I took out my wedding gown and changed the hanger and garment bag.  There was a tag hanging on the inside I had never noticed before.  It was a handwritten note with numbers of some code dressmakers use to communicate something.  I was intrigued, I stared and turned myself inside out trying to decipher the code.  It suddenly hit me, these were the measurements they had taken of me all those years ago. I gasped…sat for a moment before looking in the mirror and had to laugh.  I realized that the dress needed the shoes and the veil to grow into the outfit that I would never fit into again and that my marriage had grown into my family that fits me so beautifully.  

The growth of something allows for the imagination to fly high with possibilities.  Most of us are empowered to reach beyond, personal growth should be limitless but a leader’s growth requires boundaries.  The Torah shows us that the balance within power sits in the defined limits that stop unimpeded growth before it starts.

Want to read more? Check out Rachael’s previous blog on Parshat Shoftim.

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