“Place upon yourself a king…. He shall not greatly increase silver and gold for himself.” – Devarim 17:16-20
The Torah commands us to appoint a king to rule over the Jewish people. However, there are various warnings given to the king. He should not acquire too many horses, should not take too many wives, and should not amass too much gold and silver.
The Daas Zakeinim explains each of these excesses is singled out to protect the king from a particular danger. The danger of amassing too much wealth is that it leads to arrogance.
This Daas Zakeinim is difficult to understand because, as the Rambam explains, we are obligated to treat a king with great honor; it is vital for his effectiveness as a ruler. As a result, any individual, even the greatest talmid chacham or navi, who walks into the chambers of a king must bow down full face to the ground. No person is allowed to sit down in his presence.
Additionally, the king himself must guard his kavod. He isn’t allowed to stand up for any man in public. He isn’t allowed to use titles of honor for anyone else. If he commands a person to leave the room and that man refuses, the king has the right to have him killed.
At the same time, a king is expected to remain humble. The Torah isn’t afraid the great honor accorded to him will bring him to arrogance. He is capable of maintaining his sense of balance by understanding that honor isn’t due to himbut rather his position. He is still a mortal human. As a servant of Hashem, he plays his role as everyone else does.
The question then becomes obvious. If the king is capable of maintaining his humility despite the extraordinary honor accorded him, why is the Torah so fearful he will become arrogant if he amasses wealth? It’s as if the Torah is saying, “Honor he can handle, but wealth? Impossible!”
Why would it be so difficult for him not to be conceited if he acquired wealth? The answer to this question is based on a deeper understanding of the human personality.
The Antidote to Honor
Honor is a difficult life test. When a person is given status and accord, it is natural for him to feel different, apart and above the rest of the human race. Power, too, is a grave test. When a person feels he can control the destiny of other people, he runs the risk of feeling self-important, significant, and mighty. However, these are situations a person can deal with.
The antidote to honor is to remember where I came from and where I am going. I must understand that today I am being given great honor, but it will pass quickly. Today they sing my praises; tomorrow they will forget my name. That is the way of the world.
Power is also something a person can learn to deal with. As I stand here now, I control the destiny of others. But do I? Do I really have power? I can’t even control whether I will be alive tomorrow or not. When I lay my head on the pillow this evening, it is not in my control to will myself alive tomorrow. When my time is up, it’ll be over, and there is nothing I can do to change that. The big, powerful, mighty me can’t even control whether I exist or not.
In that sense, honor and power are potentially dangerous, but a person can be humble despite them.
The Danger of Wealth
Great wealth is different. Wealth brings a person to a much more dangerous sense of himself – a sense of independence. “I am rich! I don’t need anyone! I don’t need my wife. I don’t need my children. I don’t even need Hashem! I can buy and sell the whole world!”