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Greatness Is Humility


There is a fascinating detail in the passage about the king in this week’s parshah. The text says that, “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the levitical priests” (Deuteronomy 17:18). He must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never break Torah law. But there is also another reason: so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” (Kaplan translation), “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Robert Alter). The king had to have humility. The highest in the land should not feel that he is the highest in the land.

This is hugely significant in terms of the Jewish understanding of political leadership. There are other commands directed to the king. He must not accumulate horses so as not to establish trading links with Egypt. He should not have too many wives for “they will lead his heart astray.” He should not accumulate wealth. These were all standing temptations to a king. As we know and as the sages pointed out, it was these three prohibitions that Solomon, wisest of men, broke, marking the beginning of the long slow slide into corruption that marked much of the history of the monarchy in ancient Israel. It led, after his death, to the division of the kingdom.

But these were symptoms, not the cause. The cause was the feeling on the part of the king that, since he is above the people, he is above the law. As the rabbis said (Sanhedrin 21b), Solomon justified his breach of these prohibitions by saying that the only reason that a king may not accumulate wives is that they will lead his heart astray, so I will marry many wives and not let my heart be led astray. And since the only reason not to have many horses is not to establish links with Egypt, I will have many horses but not do business with Egypt. In both cases he fell into the trap that the Torah had warned about. Solomon’s wives did lead his heart astray (1 Kings 11:3), and his horses were imported from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28-29). The arrogance of power is its downfall. Hubris leads to nemesis.

Hence the Torah’s insistence on humility, not as a mere nicety, a good thing to have, but as essential to the role. The king was to be treated with the highest honor. In Jewish law, only a king may not renounce the honor due to his role. A parent may do so, so may a rav, so may even a nasi, but not a king (Kiddushin 32a-b). Yet there is to be a complete contrast between the external trappings of the king and his inward emotions.

Maimonides is eloquent on the subject: “Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to revere him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, for as it says: ‘My heart is empty within me’ [Psalms 109:22]. Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, ‘so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers’ [Deuteronomy 17:20].

“He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, for as it says, ‘Listen my brothers and my people….’ [1 Chronicles 28:2], and similarly, ‘If today you will be a servant to these people…’ [1 Kings 12:7].

“He should always conduct himself with great humility. There was none greater than Moses, our teacher. Yet he said: ‘What are we? Your complaints are not against us’ [Exodus 16:8]. He should bear the nation’s difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse carries an infant” (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6).

The model is Moses, described in the Torah as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12: 3). “Humble” here does not mean diffident, meek, self-abasing, timid, bashful, demure, or lacking in self-confidence. Moses was none of these. It means honoring others and regarding them as important, no less important than you are. It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding other people high. It means roughly what Ben Zoma meant when he said (Avot 4:1), “Who is honored? One who honors others.” This led to one of the great rabbinic teachings, contained in the siddur and said on Motzaei Shabbat:

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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