D’var Torah: Power corrupts: On fear, power, politics and abuse

Rabbi David Ariel-Joel

The Torah portion of this week, Shoftim, deals with the political structure of an ideal society. It tells us, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
This adage ought to be the pillar of our society. It establishes the political structure of the ideal state, describing the role of judges, law enforcement and political power.
It tells us that fear is the real danger to justice and a just society. People are not bad, but terrified people tend to do unjust things.
Fear is the real danger to a just society. When we are terrified we abuse power, and when we abuse power we become corrupt.
Our portion deals with politics and political power, it is the only place in the Torah that deals with appointing a king to Israel. The people of Israel did not have to appoint a king; only if they chose to be like the other nations, then were they allowed to choose one.
Basically, the Law of the King is about restricting the power of a monarch. The king may not have many horses (restricting his military force). The king may not accumulate a lot of gold and silver (restricting taxes). He may not have many wives (restricting diplomacy of biblical times), and he may not be a judge or a priest.
So what does a king do all day?
The king will sit and study Torah all day from the priests and Levites.
The king must obey the laws of the Torah; the Torah however does not say that the people must obey the king.
If the king follows all these restrictions, he will stay in power for many years.
Basically, the king is not in control; the laws of the Torah control the king.
This portion establishes the paradigm of what is power and politics in an ideal state.
The Torah teaches us that in order to stay in power, it is necessary to restrict one’s power. Anyone who abuses power will then lose it.
It also teaches us that in a just society, the leader should have as limited power as possible. Power, we are taught, corrupts.
The paradox of power is that when not abusing power, one gets to hold their power, when a leader and a society start to abuse their power, it will be lost.

(Rabbi David Ariel-Joel is a senior rabbi at The Temple.)


  1. Yasher Koach! Another important note is the reason why the Prophet Samuel and G-d were upset with the Jews when they wished to have a king. After all, it is a commandment in the Torah, what could be wrong?

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that when people want to reply on the king and be covered by his actions, then it is not in accordance with the Torah’s description. The king is supposed to inspire people to greater spiritual heights, not just fight their fights.

    Lets all be like kings, act justly and live the #TorahLife!

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