Good Enough for a King, Good Enough for Us



If you want to live like a king, this week's portion, Shoftim, tells you how — write a copy of the Torah for yourself, keep it with you all the time, and read in it all the days of your life. On the surface, the meaning of these verses is clear: A king of Israel must be guided by Torah in everything he does, and the scroll must be constantly with him, both as a reminder and for easy reference in the course of his duties.

That a Jewish king should follow Torah may not seem like such a big deal, but it is. Any requirement placed upon a king to follow certain rules and guidelines by definition places restrictions on his power. And if a king has to play by the rules, then it goes without saying that so do the rest of us.

Yet a king is, after all, a king. Why can't he have someone else write the scroll out for him, as long as he promises to read it diligently? After all, it takes a professional scribe as long as two years to write a Torah scroll, and a king has other things to worry about.

Sensible as this may seem on the surface, our Torah portion not only teaches that the duties of ruling a kingdom can wait, it insists. Here's why: When we write something ourselves instead of having someone else do it for us, it becomes ours — and we become more personally invested in it. And this is serious business: Torah is the closest thing we have to God's blueprint for how to live our lives.

And let's face it: There is nobody to live our lives for us. We have to do that ourselves. Therefore, the king must write out his own scroll. It may not be as pretty as those written by professional scribes, but it will be his, and he will read from the labor of his own hands, and remember who he is and Whom he serves. Without this, our tradition asserts that royal birth alone will not suffice to qualify one to rule.

Taking this a step further, Rashi noted that the Hebrew word mi-shnei (or "copy" — as in "he shall write for himself a copy") can also mean "second." From this, Rashi taught that the king must have already written a first scroll. Furthermore, since the second scroll was specifically for when the king sat on his throne, Rashi concluded that the first one must have been for personal use.

In other words, we must put our own house in order before we can go on to help others.

One Whole Person
In a time when we are taught to compartmentalize our lives, we could learn much from this teaching. Sometimes, we act one way with one group of people, and another way with a different group and a third way when we are alone. Sometimes, we observe our high-protein low-carb diets punctiliously in public, and then gorge ourselves on pretzels and pasta when no one is looking.

But what if we lived by the same set of rules everywhere and all the time? Perhaps this is a Jewish way of defining integrity — not living in broken disconnected compartments, but being one whole person all of the time. Perhaps Jewish integrity means consistently applying Jewish values that we learn from Torah in every aspect of our lives.

How exciting it is to think that we can be just as holy as the greatest people described in our sacred texts. But how do we get there?

Simply put, all we have to do is to choose to live with Jewish integrity. The choice is ours. We already write a page of "Torah" each and every day through our choices and actions.

The question is: What will we choose to write next?

Rabbi Gary Pokras is the religious leader of Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown.


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