Long before Lord Acton, the Torah well understood that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is for this reason that the King – who did have lots of power – was to be closely monitored[1]. He was not allowed to have excess wealth – neither horses nor gold and silver – nor wives[2]. It was forbidden for him to drink to excess. Perhaps most importantly he was not only to personally write his own sefer Torah – even if he had inherited many – he was to constantly, as in all the time, carry it with him. Only when he went to the washroom was he allowed to be physically separated from the Torah. It is as if he had a never-ending hakafah, something I imagine very few would want.

A further check on his power was that he was to be appointed by the 71-member Sanhedrin. In other words, unlike in democracies of today where the executive branch appoints the judiciary, it was the judiciary that appointed the executive. Presumably, this was due to the moral, ethical, intellectual attributes needed to be a judge. Let us listen to the words of the Rambam.

“We appoint to a Sanhedrin – both to the Supreme Sanhedrin and to a minor Sanhedrin – only men of wisdom and understanding, of unique distinction in their knowledge of the Torah and who possess a broad intellectual potential. They should also have some knowledge concerning other intellectual disciplines, e.g., medicine, mathematics, the fixation of the calendar, astronomy, astrology, and also the practices of fortune-telling, magic, sorcery, and the hollow teachings of idolatry, so that they will know how to judge them…. We should not appoint to a Sanhedrin a man of very old age…nor a man who is childless, so that the judges should be merciful (Rambam, Laws of the Sanhedrin 2:1-3).

The above – primarily intellectual markers of excellence – apply to the National Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court if you like. Those on more localized, lower courts, need not possess all of the above. But when it comes to moral qualities, all who judge the Jewish people must be top tier. “We are not careful” the Rambam continues, “to demand that a judge for a court of three possess all these qualities. He must, however, possess seven attributes: wisdom, humility, the fear of G-d, a loathing for money, a love for truth; he must be a person who is beloved by people at large, and must have a good reputation”.

As the court is to serve the people it is crucial that they be accepted and beloved by the people. “What will make them beloved by the people? Conducting themselves with a favourable eye and a humble spirit, being good company, and speaking and conducting their business with people gently”. 

Reading this is both depressing and uplifting. The former, when one compares the ideal to the reality, yet uplifting knowing that the Torah has confidence that such people do exist; we just have to work hard to find them. Perhaps the hardest to find today is those who are sonei betza, those who “hate money”. People who actually hate money might not exist but there are the lucky few who meet the Rambam’s definition of such. "’Men who hate money’, these are people who do not become overly concerned even about their own money. They do not pursue the accumulation of money, for anyone who is overly concerned about wealth will ultimately be overcome by want”.

It is not easy to appoint the right judges – but the existence of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel depends on it. “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your G-d, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment… Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the Land the Lord, your G-d, is giving you” (Devarim 16:18.20).

Interestingly, the Sanhedrin is the guardian not only of the judiciary but have legislative authority – at least in matters of religion. While it is the executive branch, led by the King, that sets governmental policy in matters of taxation, welfare, (most) military matters and the like, matters of religion are to be in the hands of the Sanhedrin. There is to be a separation of “Church and State”. The Torah well understood that when one mixes religion and politics, to quote Lord Jonathan Sacks, “you get terrible politics and even worse religion”.

This, the Ramban explains, was the great mistake of the Chasmonaim, the heroes of the Chanukah story, who soon after became corrupted. As kohanim they were to tend to the religious needs of the people[3]. Sadly, they broke down the barrier of Religion and State and usurped the kingship for themselves, with disastrous results[4].

Running a county is no easy task, especially when it is run by humans. The Torah implemented a series of checks and balances[5] to help ensure that tzedek tzedek tirdof, that justice reign supreme allowing the formation of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. But these are only as strong as the moral strength of the people who hold the reigns of power.

As we hear the sound of the Elul shofar may we heed the words of the Rambam (Laws of Teshuva 3:4), “Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator”.

[1]The debate as to whether having a King is an ideal (as the Rambam rules) or an unwanted but needed concession to the will of the people (as the simple reading of the Torah – and the people’s request for a king to Shmuel – suggest) is beyond the scope of the this devar Torah. Similarly, the question of whether modern forms of governance i.e. democratically elected governments, have the status of a king is a most important question but not one we can properly address here.

[2] While today that may seem like no big deal it surely was throughout history. A commoner could marry as many wives as he (and they) pleased, but a king could not.

[3] It is worth noting that the Sanhedrin was situated in the Temple grounds, highlighting its religious nature.
[4] Some might be tempted to argue that this system can only work when the King i.e. the political leadership, see themselves as bound by Torah law. While that is undoubtedly the ideal, it seems clear the Torah was worried i.e. knew, that not all kings would do so. Even the most cursory reading of Tanach demonstrates that the vast majority of kings could not care less about what the Torah had to say.

[5] One of these “checks and balances” is that of the Navi, the prophet or more accurately the social critic, whose role we have not addressed.