My brother Paul and I had a record of Bible songs when we were children. We listened to them constantly as we learned about biblical heroes, like the mighty King Rosenfeld, featured in the “Daniel” song: “Dan-Dan-Daniel, came out of Israel, looked on the Good Lord and prayed. Mighty King Rosenfeld, and honored Daniel…”
Perhaps you have never heard of mighty King Rosenfeld. That makes sense. When we got a little older, we realized with hilarity and embarrassment that the lyric was “mighty kings rose and fell.”
Rose and fell indeed. At a time of unlimited power for kings, the Torah was wisely skeptical about human power. As our parasha tells us, God reluctantly allows Israel to have a king, but with limitations. Kings may not multiply horses (lest they be tempted to go back to Egypt to enlarge the stock), may not set up a royal harem by multiplying wives, and may not acquire too much silver and gold.
The Torah seeks to humble a king, because his position will elevate him. While reciting the standing prayer, the Amida, a king must remain bowed throughout the prayer (Ber. 34a). And a king must both write a Torah scroll and carry it with him and read it throughout his life (Mishna Sanhedrin 2:4).
The great kings of Israel are famous for different characteristics than we might assume. David is known for the Psalms and for being the ancestor of the Messiah. Solomon is renowned for wisdom and having three books of the Bible attributed to him (Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). Kings of Israel do not earn their reputations by the magnitude of their conquests. Kings of other nations, even when accomplished in other areas, are often remembered more for battles. Alfred the Great was a scholar who translated books and undertook legal reform, but in history books, it was his war against the Vikings that made him great. Omri in the Bible rules for over a decade and is undefeated but merits fewer than 10 verses because he did “evil in the sight of the Lord.” (I Kings: 16).
Rulers in the ancient world acted like Pharaoh in the Torah – capricious, often cruel, and unlimited in the scope given to their appetites and preferences. According to the Greek Historian Herodotus, Cambyses the King of Persia wished to marry his sister. The learned men searched and reported they could not find a specific law allowing him to marry his sister, but they did find a law stating the king could do whatever he wished.
Human sovereigns should never consider themselves as omnipotent. Those who lead should be subject to more constrains, not fewer, than those whom they lead. They will rise and fall, like mighty King Rosenfeld. “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Prov 22:4).”