Chazal teach that there are worthwhile spiritual insights to be gained from studying earthly kingship
Many of us were doubtless struck, in these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, by the timely convergence: Just as we prepare to once again coronate the King of All Kings with our shofar and machzorim, and above all our hearts, across the pond in Britain, a new flesh-and-blood king has taken the throne of the world’s most famous monarchy upon the passing of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.
Speaking for myself, I felt the slightest chill down my spine as I read of how, on the day after the queen’s death, a proclamation declaring Charles III’s reign was to be read by heralds arriving to London’s Trafalgar Square on horseback, wearing uniforms harking back to the Middle Ages. Two days later, the report continued, “the proclamation will be read out in ceremonial fashion in capitals across the United Kingdom… and later, high sheriffs in traditional garb will declare the news in towns and villages across the country.”
Why, here in 2022, was a scene out of 1022 — one I’d only encountered in Marcus Lehmann novels (okay, Shmuel Kunda tapes too). For me, it brought alive the halachah (see Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 61:4) that directs us to recite Krias Shema twice daily as if it were a royal proclamation that’s just been posted in the village square, with all the townsfolk gathering round to read the sovereign’s commands slowly and carefully, with trembling and awe.
Chazal teach that there are worthwhile spiritual insights to be gained from studying earthly kingship. As they express it, “malchusa d’ara k’ein malchusa d’Rekiya,” in various particulars earthly kingship resembles the one On High.
In our times, of course, British royalty is a far cry from what kings and queens around the world once were. The king or queen of the British Commonwealth is the head of state, not of government, entirely apolitical and without any real power over their subjects. Notwithstanding, there are important things to learn from the institution of the monarchy, insights about the essential nature of meluchah, whether Divine or mortal.
And if there are lessons to be learned from a monarch’s reign, there are few better examples than that of the just-deceased Elizabeth II. Upon her birth in April 1926, she was described in contemporaneous press reports as “a possible, though improbable, successor to the throne of England.”
Boy, were they wrong. By the time she died, she’d ruled for more than 70 years. In September 2015, she surpassed even her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. And she and her husband, Prince Philip, were married for nearly seventy-five years.
In 1952, when Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary ascended to the throne at age 25 upon the death of King George VI, she instantly became one of the most famous people in the world, whose every act and utterance was followed by millions. On April 24, 1960, a short newspaper piece carried the headline, “Queen Elizabeth Has a Cold.”
Yet, she was the furthest thing from a conventional celebrity. She was neither brilliant nor glamorous; neither highly-accomplished nor super-talented. She didn’t have the power to wage war or move markets. True, she was very wealthy — with lots of jewels and very nice houses, called palaces and castles, to dwell in — but that, too, wasn’t the essence of her mystique. It was, instead, something I believe Miles Smith IV, writing in The Dispatch, touched upon when he observed: “Elizabeth understood that she was the actual human embodiment of the United Kingdom.”
From that role flowed a great dignity, a public deportment of grace and refinement, a presence that wordlessly conveyed significance, hers, and by extension, that of her subject nation. Not only is none of this the stuff of contemporary celebrity; it is its antithesis. As Mr. Smith writes: “Frivolity, therefore, seemed entirely outside of her character. Certainly Elizabeth was light-hearted and even fun at times; her visible excitement at winning Royal Ascot, and her delight in cows at a livestock show, were not the actions of a person who was temperamentally stern. But Elizabeth didn’t publicly kiss babies or hug fawning fans.”
THE QUEEN’S ABILITY to embody her nation stemmed from a decision she’d made right at the outset of her reign. In a speech on her 21st birthday, she said, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” And by keeping that promise, and becoming the picture of a leader as devoted servant who places the nation’s interest before hers, she came to embody it.
This why the queen kept whatever political and social views she had to herself, the better to serve as an inspiring, unifying symbol for her countrymen, the one person who when she spoke, did so for all of Britain. As one writer put it, when Elizabeth became queen, she “was tasked as a twenty-something with a job that required her to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human — for the rest of her life.”
Chazal, as we know, constantly draw upon meshalim involving kings (and princes too, because what’s a good king parable without one?). And because the kings in these stories represent Hashem, they invariably are powerful yet benevolent rulers.
In actual history, however, absolute rulers who were not self-aggrandizing abusers of their power at the expense of their helpless subjects, have been the exception rather than the rule. And so it’s valuable when we can point to an actual contemporary example, a mashal come to life of what royalty is supposed to be.
True, the British queen never had to overcome the temptations of power, since she had none. But with her fame and wealth, she could have succumbed to the debasing lure of celebrity, but didn’t.
The reason the Torah is so concerned that a Jewish king’s heart should not stray, the Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 3:6) writes, is because his heart is “the heart of all of K’hal Yisrael.” In other words, he embodies his nation, and that’s why he is bidden to be preoccupied with their welfare, “spending day and night in the study of Torah and involved in the needs of Klal Yisrael.”
As the Rambam describes, a Jewish king must be treated by his people with a mix of the greatest respect and fear. He receives a daily haircut, and sits upon his palace throne, resplendent in his royal attire, a crown atop his head. All who enter his presence must bow to the ground, even a prophet.
The role of the king himself, however, is more complex. Privately, he stands when the Sanhedrin enters and seats its members next to him; but in public, he projects a very different image. “He stands before no one, does not speak softly, nor calls anyone by any title, only by his name.” And yet, the Rambam continues,
As much as all must accord him the greatest respect, his own heart must be hollow and lowly within him… He must be compassionate to both the greatest and least of his people, and be constantly busy with their needs and welfare and considerate of the honor of the smallest of the small… He must always act with exceeding humility… and bear the burden of his people, their trouble, complaints and anger…
The Jewish king stands the common conception of rulership on its head. He is all-powerful in his realm, with broad license to draft his subjects into his service and use their property as he sees fit, yet he is expected to humbly put himself at his nation’s service. And in this, he is an earthly stand-in for Hashem, who is truly all-powerful, yet has no needs and created everything only to benefit His creations.
The queen was far from a Jewish role model. Yet in her rare synthesis of dignified demeanor — royal aloofness mixing with concern for her countrymen — and in her steadfast exaltation of nation over self, she provided a modern-day glimpse of what malchus is about. As Miles Smith put it, “In Elizabeth II, the Anglophone world has lost a ruler who sought to not to be great, but to be good. Would that there were more like her.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 929. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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