Shoftim: A Good Life Without Horses

April 13, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Judges), includes four limits on any future king of Israel, and four exemptions from military duty.  As soon as I noticed this, I had a feeling the two passages were related.

You shall set over yourself a king from among your brothers …  Only he shall not accumulate horses for himself, so he will not turn the people toward Egypt for the sake of accumulating horses, for God said to you: You shall not find an excuse to return by this path again.  And he shall not accumulate wives for himself, so that he will not turn away from his own levav.  And he shall not accumulate very much silver and gold for himself.  And as he takes his seat upon the throne of this kingdom, he will write for himself a copy of this teaching upon a scroll, in front of the priests of the Levites.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:15-18)

levav = heart (literally), mind (figuratively), inner nature, inner self, seat of emotions and thoughts, morale, character.

Horses in biblical times were used exclusively to pull war chariots, so a king who accumulated horses would be preparing for war.  A few chapters later, four peacetime activities are treated as more important than war.  Unlike some earlier parts of the Torah, Shoftim views war as undesirable—at least once the land of Israel has been conquered and settled.

Then the administrators will speak to the people, saying: Who is the man who has built a new house and not dedicated it?  He will go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will dedicate it.  And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not made his own use of it?  He will go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will make his own use of it.  And who is the man who has become engaged to a woman and not taken her home?  He will go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will take her home.  And the administrators will continue to speak to the people, and they will say: Who is the man who is fearful and sensitive of levav?  He will go and return to his house, and not melt the levav of a brother to be like his levav.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:5-8)

Both passages translated above mention the levav, which includes a person’s inner self or character.  Therefore they can also be read as warnings to develop our own individual lives, neither conquering others nor surrendering to them.

A king must not acquire war horses from Egypt; a man must dedicate his own house.  So we humans should neither interfere with the privacy and independence of others, nor give up our own privacy and independence; we should take good care of our own lives and homes.

A king must not accumulate too much silver and gold; a man must use the fruits of his own vineyard (after bringing the first fruits to the temple).  So we humans should neither accumulate high salaries and luxuries at the expense of others, nor fail to benefit from the fruits of our own labor; we should enjoy the works of our own hands.

A king must avoid marrying women who will tempt him to turn away from his own character, and must refrain from taking so many wives that he loses touch with his inner self; a man must take a woman to whom he has made a commitment into his home in full marriage.  So we humans should neither squander ourselves in a series of shallow relationships, nor hold back altogether from sharing our homes and souls; we should manage our love lives with care for the integrity of our selves and our partners.

Finally, a king must make his own copy of the Torah, the Teaching on how to live in harmony with God; and a man must work on the sensitive parts of his psychology at home, instead of upsetting others with his fears.  So we humans should not ignore either the moral rules of our society or our own intuitions of the divine; neither should we assume that we have no effect on others, nor that we cannot change.  We should examine our souls honestly and work on self-improvement.

If only we all take care of our own lives, enjoy the works of our own hands, treat everyone with respect, and improve our own inner natures , we will no longer need to conquer or compete with others.  There will no longer be a time for war.

(This blog was first posted on August 9, 2010.)

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