Shoftim – Lower Taxes!

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This dvar Torah is sponsored in memory of Seymour Rosenberg, Shlomo Shmuel ben Aharon, upon his yahretzeit, the 6th of Elul. May it be an aliyas neshama.

In this week’s Torah portion of Shoftim it discusses the appointment of a king. Rabbeinu Bachye observes that a Jewish king should be unlike the kings in the rest of the world. Whereas other monarchs have many horses and great wealth, meaning that they pride themselves with much power and money, the Torah commands of a Jewish king to not have a lot of horses, wives, or silver and gold. Rather, his main focus should be the Torah and the fear of Heaven, to the point that he must have a sefer Torah besides him at all times, and frequently read from it. Indeed, the Torah guarantees that a Jewish king who does not show haughtiness towards his subjects will rule for many years (see Rabeinu Bachye Devarim 17:16).
Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to explain that a Jewish king should only have enough horses for himself and his army, and a maximum of 18 wives, as King David had. He could also have enough wealth to take care of himself, his family, and yearly wages for his soldiers who accompany him wherever he goes.  But he is not allowed to build up a fortune, in order that he won’t become haughty (see Rabbeinu Bachye continued in pasuk 16 and 17).

Rabbeinu Bachye also quotes the Chacham Rebbe Avraham zt”l who gives another reason of why a king should not compile a large amount of gold and silver; in order not to burden Jews with high taxes.  For we see that King Shlomo weighed on the Jewish people the yoke of high taxes in order to collect much silver and gold for himself, and wealth is compared to fire, in that the more wood to fuel the fire, the higher the flame. We even find that the entire Jewish people complained about Shlomo to his son Rachavam [after Shlomo passed and Rechavam took over] as it writes: “Your father has made our yoke heavy,” (Melachim Alef 12:10). It got so bad that they killed Adoniram, who was the head tax collector, by stoning him in his house. We find that King Shlomo, who was the greatest person in the world at the time, still succumbed to these 3 things: Many horses, as it says: “And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots” (Melachim Alef 5:6). Many wives, as it says: “And he had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines” (Melachim Alef 11:3). So to silver, as it says: “And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones (Melachim Alef 10:27), it also says in pasuk 21: “none was of silver, [since] it was reckoned with as nothing in the days of Solomon.” He said about all these 3 things: “I will acquire a lot of it but it will not be forbidden.” He relied on his wisdom to go against the Torah, and faltered in them. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We must put into context what this means about King Shlomo. He was the leading Torah scholar of the generation. He was granted the gift of wisdom by Hashem to be smarter than anyone else in the history of mankind. He was on the lofty level of a prophet and compiled 3 books of Tanach with Divine inspiration: Shir Hashirim, Mishlei, and Koheles. He merited the first Beis Hamikdash to be built under his auspices and peace to reign throughout the world. In fact, the gemaras in Gitten 68b and Sanhedrin 20b says that because of his mistakes he lost control of the Demon World which he once ruled over, but always maintained kingship over the world during his lifetime, not just the Jewish people. There is even an argument as to whether he got back rule over the Demon World towards the end of his life. Someone of such loftiness, on such a high spiritual level, could not have sinned so severly. Rather, it must have been a miniscule sin that, due to his level, Tana”ch and Chaza”l amplify, because of the lofty expectations which he himself had earned. In fact the Metzudas Dovid clearly says that Shlomo was not led astray to worship idols by his wives; he just turned a blind eye to what they were doing. He never returned to settle in Egypt, he just bought his horses from there, and he didn’t collect money simply to keep in storehouses for his own pride, rather the pesukim indicate that he laden Yerushalayim with silver on the streets, in order to beautify the city, the place that housed Hashem’s Holy Temple. So his wisdom did, at least based on the reasoning of the law, safeguard him from straying from Hashem’s Torah, and allowed him to reach great heights of clinging to Hashem and doing His service. However, the strict letter of the law didn’t permit it, and it took a toll on the people. Though they did not complain outright to King Shlomo in his lifetime, they did complain to his son and even murdered, in cold blood, his chief tax collector.

A very important lesson we can learn from here is that high taxes, even for the most sincere reasons, as King Shlomo must have had as we see with the glorification of Hashem’s capital city, still can get out of hand like adding wood to an existing flame and is a great burden to society.