“The Dangers of Pridefulness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the fascinating topics that we find in this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, is the Torah’s prediction that in the future, the nation of Israel will ask for a king to rule over them.

In Deuteronomy 17:14 we read the verse, כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ, וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי, When you come to the Land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, and possess it, and settle in it, and you will say: “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.”

The Torah allows the Jewish people to set a king over the people, but only one whom G-d chooses. There are many qualifications and restrictions that apply to the king of Israel. He must be Jewish. He may not have too many horses or too many wives, and he may not amass too much wealth.

Although the king is the ultimate monarch, he is to be subservient to G-d and to the Torah. To underscore the king’s subservience, once the king is coronated and sits on the throne, he must write for himself two copies of the Torah, one to keep in his treasury and the other to be with him at all times.

The Chatam Sofer notes that the king must consult the Torah for guidance on how to conduct himself and how to properly rule over the people. In order to remain true to the Torah, the king is required to confer with the religious leaders of the nation, the Sanhedrin–the Supreme Court of Jewish law, and abide by their decisions.

The Torah sets the tone for the king’s personal conduct and serves as his practical life guide. Scripture (Deuteronomy 17:19) requires that the king have the Torah with him at all times to read from all the days of his life, so that the king will learn to properly fear the L-rd, his G-d, to observe the words of His Torah and the decrees, to perform them.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 17:20, suggests that one of the reasons that the king must have the Torah with him is, לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו וּלְבִלְתִּי סוּר מִן הַמִּצְוָה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול, לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל מַמְלַכְתּוֹ הוּא וּבָנָיו, בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל, So that his [the king’s] heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that his years over the kingdom be prolonged, he and his sons, amid Israel.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus, in Tiferet Shimshon, suggests that because the king has greater responsibility, he has to be particularly careful not to allow his pride to get the best of him. This is true also of people of great wealth or those blessed with great intelligence. Because of their endowments, they bear greater responsibility, since everything they have is ultimately a gift from G-d, and much more is expected of them.

The commentators regard the statement, לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו, So that the king’s heart does not become haughty over his brethren, as an important warning against excessive pride, not only in kings, but for all people. The rabbis regard pride as a detestable trait that is despised by G-d, even in kings, who have a right to show their authority and to act with a measure of haughtiness. Only G-d is to be exalted. Only to Him is there to be limitless praise and glory. As the Prophet Jeremiah powerfully declares, Jeremiah 9:22-23, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the wealthy man glory in his wealth, let not the powerful man glory in his power.” The only legitimate glory for man is to glory in understanding and knowing G-d.

To say the least, the rabbis are not fond of prideful people. The Talmud states that one who takes upon himself too many restrictions is considered a בַּעַל גַּאֲוָה–“Ba’al guy’vah,” a prideful person. A haughty communal leader is not to be suffered (Talmud Psachim 113b). The Talmud in Sotah 5a states, that anyone who acts pridefully and seeks a position of importance and high authority, will never succeed. Anyone who flees from importance and high authority, authority will run after him.

This is similar to the famous statement found in Ethics of the Fathers, (Avot 1:13), that declares that anyone who seeks honor, honor will flee from him. When I was a small boy, my father, of blessed memory, used to tell me of the man who came to his rabbi in tears, crying, “Rabbi, I have been running away from honor and glory for many years and honor has not pursued me. Why?” The rabbi told him, “Because, when you ran away from honor, your head was always turned back to see if honor was chasing you!”

There is no question that people in positions of high authority require respect and honor. Nevertheless, the Torah declares that even a king’s heart may not be haughty and prideful, and that even a monarch must behave with a measure of modesty and meekness.

Of course, if this is true of a king, how much more must it be of the general population.

May you be blessed.