“Let them eat cake!”
Popularly attributed to Marie Antoinette, this quote has entered our lexicon as an expression of the callousness and obliviousness of the royalty and upper class to those less fortunate.
Although the attribution to Marie Antoinette is doubtful, the concern that those in power not lose touch with the masses is an ancient one that has not lost its relevance today. Power corrupts, the popular adage tells us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There is no greater position of power than the monarchy. And yet, despite some ambivalence (see Samuel 1 chapter 8, Talmud Sanhedrin 20b), the Torah explicitly allows, indeed according to most commentaries recommends, the institution of monarchy, and accords it a great deal of authority, including extrajudicial power. Was the Torah not concerned with its possible abuse?
The answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion. First the Torah demands relative moderation regarding the king’s physical pursuits, thereby differentiating his lifestyle from the monarchs of the nations of the world and assuring that he refrain from a decadent way of life that would inevitably “turn his heart astray.” Furthermore, the king is required to write two copies of a Torah scroll, one to be kept in his treasury, showing that the Torah is his true treasure, and one that he must carry with him at all times and read from all the days of his life. Why? The Torah tells us explicitly – “so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren.” He is to carry the scroll that includes this very verse, to remind him at all times that the Torah is his guide. And the Torah demands that despite the honor inherent in his position, his role is to be exceedingly humble, to be one who cares about the “little people” no less than the prominent, and someone who is concerned with the honor of the smallest of the small. Despite the outward trappings of royalty, the Torah reminds the Jewish king that along with being a ruler, he is also a shepherd and a servant of the people (see Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6).
In today’s day and age monarchy is not all that relevant to us (unless we follow the gossip pages!). But the Torah’s lesson of the monarchy is timeless. The Rabbis teach us that the lessons of the monarchy apply to all the various leadership positions that we have — whether at work, in our community, or in our families. The paradigm should always be to use our position to lift up others, not ourselves, to work for others, not for ourselves. The more powerful the position, the more we are to use it to benefit others. Doing so will guarantee achieving a true position of honor, as the rabbis teach: “Who is honored? He who honors others!” (Avos 4:1).