Shoftim: Horses and Human Dignity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

The portion Shoftim has many laws pertaining to civil,
criminal, political, and military governance, including a law which
warns the people not let the future king amass too much power and
treasure:

“Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt
to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, ‘You must not go
back that way again.’ ” (Deuteronomy/D’varim 17:16)

I can certainly understand a warning not to let the king have too
many horses- a king with a large standing army will be tempted to use
it unnecessarily. A large standing army will become an end in itself,
requiring ever more taxes and forced service from the people. Having
said that, what difference does it make where the king acquires the
horses he is, in fact, permitted to have? Why should it matter if he
buys them from Egypt or from any other country?

Perhaps the Torah warns against going back to Egypt because Egypt, in
our ancestor’s historical memory, was the paradigmatic place of
oppression, where human beings were treated as mere objects, to be
used and discarded at the pleasure of Pharoah. Egypt- in the
experience of our ancestors- is where classes of human beings had no
inherent worth or dignity, but only instrumental value as a means to
somebody else’s ends.

I think that is why no representative of the king could go to Egypt
to buy horses- because the Torah doesn’t want any member of the
Israelite leadership to experience such an objectifying way of seeing
his fellow citizens. “You must not go back that way again”- that is,
the way of thinking about human relationships which is characteristic
of “Egypt” in the Torah’s frame of reference. Perhaps a king was
especially vulnerable to losing sight of the inherent worth and moral
standing of each person, but the problem of Egypt, as a metaphor for
how humans dehumanize each other, is still with us, and so the
Torah’s warning still stands: don’t go back that way again.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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