Statue of King David in Copenhagen by F.A. Jerichau
Statue of King David in Copenhagen by F.A. Jerichau

The Torah on the importance of holding political leaders to high ethical standards

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

Ben Bag-Bag famously said of the Torah, “Turn it over and over because everything is in it.” These words from Pirkei Avot are as true today as they were when they were first written more than 1,700 years ago.

In Shoftim, Moses exhorts the Israelites to establish fair systems of judgment and leadership, and implores them to pursue justice themselves. Aware that his death is imminent and that he won’t be alive to lead the Israelites, he offers comprehensive instructions for creating a new society in the Land of Canaan.

Central to these instructions are those pertaining to Israel’s rulers, and it is here where Ben Bag-Bag’s enduring words, as well as those of the Torah portion, find particular relevance today.

For the Torah is not just a spiritual and ethical document. It is also a political one. And much of Shoftim concerns itself with proper conduct and comportment for ancient Israel’s political leaders.

Clearly, in the Torah and in the Jewish tradition, leadership and governance are inextricably tied to our values and ethics. Today, at a time of such extreme political discord and moral fraying of our society, the essential lessons of Shoftim are as indispensable today as they were thousands of years ago.

Moses instructs the Israelites that once they enter the land and establish themselves there, they are free to set a king over themselves, as the other nations do. The king, however, is to govern by a powerful ritual that serves both to hold him accountable and keep him humble.

In Deuteronomy 17:18-20, we read, “When the king is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read it all his life, so that he may learn to revere God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.”

The value inherent in this instruction is reverence, reverence for God, for the people and for the land itself.

The Torah is not just a spiritual and ethical document. It is also a political one.

It serves as a constant reminder both to the king and his people that, above all else, he serves God and is accountable to God. Providing necessary checks against corruption and haughtiness, this ritual grounds political governance in holiness, humility and righteousness.

For centuries, rabbinic commentators have explored the meaning and power of this commandment. According to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 21b, it is not enough for the king to keep a Torah scroll next to him, but he must actually write it himself. When he goes out to war, he must bring it with him. And when he comes home from war, he must bring it back with him.

When he reclines to eat, it is with him. Ein Yaakov adds that when he sits on his throne to judge the people and their disputes, the Torah is beside him, as well.

The commentators teach that the king must possess two Torah scrolls, one that he keeps in his treasury (back home) and one, in the form of a small amulet, which hangs on his right arm and is with him always, referencing Psalm 16:8, “I have set the Lord always before me; God is at my right hand, that I shall not be moved.”

And according to a Midrash, only when the king does all that is written in this regard is he worthy of sitting on the throne of his kingdom (Sifrei Devarim 160:1).

Why would the Torah command such a painstaking ritual?

Is it not enough for the king to possess a Torah without having to scribe it himself?

Only through studying and learning the law could the king truly know the law. And in knowing the law, he could no longer be above the law.

As Ramban (Nachmanides) teaches, “The Torah restrains the king from arrogance and haughtiness of heart … it warns him that his heart must be low and humble like his fellows. Because arrogance is abhorrent to God and to God alone is praised.”

The Torah holds our leaders to a righteous standard of accountability and responsibility, to uphold the highest values of justice and compassion, and to embody the noble characteristics of humility and reverence. We must demand nothing less of our own leaders and of ourselves.

Rabbi Stacy Friedman
Rabbi Stacy Friedman

Rabbi Stacy Friedman is the senior rabbi of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. She and her husband Frank are the proud parents of two teenage sons.