“Let them eat cake!”
Popularly attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette, this quote has entered our lexicon to express the callousness and obliviousness of the royalty and upper class to the people they rule.
Although the source of the quote is doubtful, the concern that those in power will lose touch with the masses is an ancient one that has not lost its relevance today. The popular adage tells us that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There is no greater position of power than the monarchy. Despite some ambivalence (see Shmuel 1 chapter 8 and Talmud Sanhedrin 20b), the Torah explicitly allows, and according to most commentaries, recommends, the institution of monarchy, according it a great deal of authority, including extrajudicial power. Was the Torah not concerned with possible abuse of the system?
The answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion. First, the Torah demands relative moderation regarding the king’s physical pursuits, differentiating his lifestyle from the monarchs of the world’s nations 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 verse to remind him at all times that the Torah is his guide.
The Torah demands that despite the honor inherent in his position, his role is to be exceedingly humble. He must care about the “little people” no less than the prominent, and be 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).
Today, monarchy is not all that relevant to us (unless we follow the tabloids!). 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 within our families. The paradigm should always be to use our position to lift up others, not ourselves; to work for others, not ourselves. The more powerful the position, the more one’s obligation 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!” (Avot 4:1).
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.