The roles played by the judges and the king
complement one another in leading the Jewish People
The Torah portion of Shoftim relates in particular to the judicial system and the appointment of various public officers in the Jewish People; the judges, police officers, the Kohanim (priests), the Levites, and the prophets. The central figure mentioned in the portion is the king.
The current judicial system in Israel is based on non-Jewish law. It is not obligated to the Torah. The rabbinical courts are limited to particular fields, and the rulings they make are often severely restricted. Contemplating the hierarchy of the officials in the ideal Jewish government will help us understand our heartfelt prayer, “Return our judges as at first, and our advisors as at the beginning.”
The Judges – The Mind
In general, the pyramid of Jewish government is headed by two bodies: the judges and the king. The judges are also organized in a hierarchical system, from the local judge in the small town up to the Sanhedrin, the Great Court, which resides in Lishkat Hagazit (“The Hall of Hewn Stones”), by the Temple in Jerusalem. If the minor court does not reach a satisfactory decision, the Great Court has the final word. Any Torah scholar who violates the ruling of the Great Court is severely punished.
Shoftim (שֹֽׁפְטִים), the name of the portion, means “Judges.” Of the different officials enumerated, the judges are mentioned first. They represent the lucid mind of Torah study. Just as the head is the undisputed ruler of the body, so the judges oversee the behavior of the people, as a nation and as a collective. The Torah encompasses the entire corpus of law, thus everything can be judged by its standards. The judging power is the ruling power and their word is law.
The King of Israel – The Heart
But, Jewish government has another leader: “You shall surely appoint a king.” We need to study in depth the passage relating to the appointment of a king that appears in this portion of the Torah. A Jewish king, and Mashiach, the epitome of righteous royalty, are the antithesis of the image incurred from the world’s experience with tyrannical kings. The Torah, the Prophets, and the subject of our prayers focus on reinstating the kingdom of David and the revelation of Mashiach. Once we have learned this passage, we can know what royalty is about and the type of king for whom we hope and pray.
Nowadays, a royal ruler is a figurehead who authorizes the law in his or her kingdom. He or she has no other special authority and is completely obligated to the country’s legislation. In Jewish law too, the Torah sets the rules of the game, and the judges are the ones who implement them. The king, like his citizens, is subject to the laws of the Torah. From this perspective, he has no diplomatic immunity, and the rule is, “Kings of the Davidic dynasty are judged if there is a case against them.”
Yet, there is a broad range in which the king does make major decisions. In the extreme case of someone who rebels against his kingdom, the king decides how and when to mete out punishment (or he can choose to pardon the rebel).
Some commentaries distinguish between “Torah Judgment,” and the “King’s Judgment.” The judges are responsible for “Torah judgment,” which is the absolute Divine truth. From it, they establish the principles of Jewish justice. The purpose of the king’s judgment is to take care of the welfare of the nation. He deals with temporary issues that demand immediate attention. The king decides when to recruit the army to war. Why, then, is the king not the highest authority in the nation under all circumstances?
The judges represent the rational mind of the nation. This is true to such an extent that in certain cases, the judges are referred to as “God” (אֱ־לֹהִים). The ability to judge is one of the principal attributes of God, as the verse states, “For God judges; He deposes [one individual] and He elevates [the other].”
The king is referred to as a “prince” (נָשִׂיא), who is liable to sin. He represents the heart of the nation. The unrefined heart has a proclivity to sin. The Torah verses emphasize the king’s heart in particular. It limits the number of wives and horses that the king may accumulate, “so that his heart shall not become uplifted.” The king also has a constant commandment to carry a Torah scroll “against his heart.” The Torah, his judge and his rational mind, must rule over his heart and he must not become arrogant over his brethren. The heart is sensitive, alive and warm. With every heartbeat it is aware of the moment. The Zohar states, “The mind rules over the heart.” The king needs to be subject to the consistency of the law, represented by the coolheaded, stable-minded judges. This subjugation to the judges nurtures an inner sense of lowliness that must accompany every king, as King David said of himself, “I appear lowly in my own eyes.”
Yet, the king has special privileges that no other Jew has, even the judges. This grants him an aura of grandiosity in the eyes of his subjects. Everyone must be in awe of the king, and they must keep a respectful distance from him. “A king who declines his honor, his honor is not declined.” A king who is not “uplifted” over his people is not a king at all!
Just as the Torah grants him great honor and everyone is obligated to honor him, so too he is commanded that his heart be lowly within him and hollow, as it says, “And my heart is hollow within me.” He should not be overly arrogant towards the Jewish People… He should be pardoning and compassionate towards the lower and upper classes alike… and he should spare the respect of the most minor citizen… He should always behave with great humility… and he should bear their business, and their burden, and their complaints, and their fury, as the nurse carries the suckling. The verse calls him “a shepherd.”
The king conveys an outer casing of sovereignty, while paradoxically nurturing an inner sense of profound lowliness and humility. “The heart of kings is unfathomable.” Here we see that the “heart” of the nation, the king, has an external dimension and a deep inner dimension. The innermost point of the king’s humility is the pure origin of the nation’s soul. It touches the infinite, where “The heart of kings is in the hands of God.”
Chassidut teaches us that above the level at which “The mind rules over the heart,” there is a more profound level at which “the innermost point of the heart rules over the mind.” The king’s external demeanor is subject to the rulings and teachings of the judges, but his pure, innermost core of humility rises above, and rules over them. The king’s autonomy stems from his lowliness towards the citizens under his rule. As such, the innermost depth of the king’s heart reflects the heart of the entire Jewish People. This grants him the power to give a temporary order that is exactly suited to the moment. It may even override the normative ruling of the Torah. This is the aspect of government that is greater than the sages and judges.
Revealing the King
The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that every Jew has a spark of Mashiach that is waiting to be revealed. We can reveal it by lowering ourselves and developing our innate sensitivity to others. A truly righteous individual, who has refined his heart to such an extent, intuits the Torah’s principles naturally. This corresponds to the state of natural consciousness that can be achieved in the Land of Israel.
We read Parashat Shoftim at the beginning of the month of Elul. This is the month in which we do teshuvah (repentance) on the personal scale, by refining and rectifying our own actions. But, we must also return to God as a collective. We can achieve this goal by uniting as Jews and establishing an authentic Jewish leadership. This is our prayer for the return of the judges and reinstatement of the kingdom of David. May it be speedily and in our days.
 Psalms 74:8.
 Leviticus 4:22.
 Proverbs 25:3.
 See our book מודעות טבעית and elsewhere.