There is a fascinating detail in the passage about the king in this week’s parsha. 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” (Deut. 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 another reason also: 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 himself to be 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: 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 of which the Torah had warned. 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 honour. In Jewish law, only a king may not renounce the honour 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 honour and obliges everyone to revere him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, as it says: 'My heart is empty within me' (Ps. 109:22). Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Deut. 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 honour of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, 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” (Ex. 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)
Rabbi Jochanan said, Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who shows no favoritism and accepts no bribe.” Immediately afterwards it is written, “He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing” ... (Megillah 31a)