this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 7/4/2015
One of the books on my reading list this summer is called Bringing Up the Bodies, the second in a series of historical novels about the court of King Henry the 8th by the British novelist Hillary Mantel. The first book is called Wolf Hall, and that title may sound more familiar to you, as one of the hottest tickets on Broadway these days is an adaptation of the novel by the Royal Shakespeare Company that is currently playing to sold out houses and rave reviews. The two books together tell the story of Thomas Cromwell, a born commoner, the son of a brewer, who becomes a lawyer and rises through the layers of British society until he is the most important man in England after the king himself. The books present a wonderful portrait of Cromwell, truly one of the fascinating figures of his age, a person who through the events of his life becomes a symbol of the transition from the traditional structure of the monarchy to what would ultimately become the democratic model of government that changed the world.
One of the ways the books try to illustrate this is by comparing the characters of Cromwell and the King. Henry is portrayed as capricious, self centered and self indulgent, and suspicious, and his central concern is the preservation of his own power. Cromwell, on the other hand, is shown as being clever and thoughtful, sharply intelligent and perceptive, a self made man who is concerned with power and understands it, but believes that power should be applied for the ultimate benefit of the people. If you know the history you know that the story will not end well for Cromwell, but in the course of his life he manages to set the stage for the democratic process that will one day banish the monarchy to a purely symbolic role, devoid of both power and purpose.
There is no question in my mind that Judaism would take a Cromwell over a King any day. Here is a confession: I always feel just a tad bit guilty when I sit with the pre-school kids on Friday mornings and sing ‘David Melech Yisroel.’ They love the song, they know the words, and the hand motions, and it puts the idea of King David in their heads pretty much for the rest of their lives. But the truth is Judaism has always been suspicious of the institute of the monarchy in general and the figure of the King in particular. When we meet kings in the Bible they are generally portrayed as dangerous, selfish, and destructive. Remember that Pharaoh, the great villain of the Torah, is referred to time and again in the early chapters of Exodus as מלך מצרים, the King of Egypt. In this week’s eponymous Torah portion we read about Balak, the king of Moab. He is a vindictive and spiteful man who spends his wealth and energy on trying to hire Bilaam, a gentile prophet, to curse the Israelites. In a series of almost comic episodes his plans are thwarted by God, who causes the prophet to bless the Israelites instead of cursing them. The message with both Pharaoh and Balak is quite clear – there is one king, and one king only – God! – and any human who pretends otherwise is only fooling himself.
To get back to King David for a second, the Bible doesn’t even seem to be happy with the idea of Jewish kings. Many of the Israelite kings described in Tanach are portrayed as misguided, dangerous, and as having rejected God and God’s ways. That is in fact one of the central roles of the prophet in the Bible – to tell the king that he is, as they say in the Orthodox community today, OTD – off the derech! – he has strayed off the proper path. Even the institution of the monarchy is described in the Bible as being an accession to the will of the people, but in general not a good idea. You may remember the story in I Samuel chapter 8 where the people go to Samuel, the great prophet of his time, asking that he establish a king over Israel. This is Samuel’s memorable response: This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: he will take your sons into his army, he will make them plow his fields, reap his harvest, make his weapons; he will take your daughters, he will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and love groves, and give them to his courtiers. He will tax you and take your animals, and the say will come when you cry out because of the king you yourselves have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you on that day.’ Not exactly a ringing endorsement. It is the kind of statement that King Henry would have shuddered to read. But Thomas Cromwell, who by all reports knew well the early English translation of the Bible by John Wycliff (1380), would have quietly nodded his head.
So it is perhaps no surprise that the Bible was a source of inspiration and wisdom for the early founders of the United States. The Pilgrims who were settling what would become New England in the early 1600s saw their own story as a virtual recreation of the biblical exodus narrative. England, in their eyes, was Egypt. The King of England was their Pharaoh, and the Atlantic Ocean was their Reed Sea. Last, but certainly not least in their eyes, America was the land of Israel, the Promised Land where they would be free from oppression, and would make a new life under God’s watchful eyes.
Of course the founding fathers also looked to the Hebrew Bible for inspiration. The Bible’s inherent district of the monarchy spoke to them as they struggled against the England and its tyrannical king. It is no small coincidence that so many early symbols from the Colonies and later the United States came directly from Tanach – the Yale, Dartmouth, and Columbia seals all have images and/or words that come from the Hebrew Bible. The inscription on the Liberty Bell is a direct quotation from Leviticus chapter 25, verse 10. And perhaps most interesting of all, the very first design for the official seal of the United States of America, recommended by no less than Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, depicted an image of the Israelites crossing the Reed Sea. As with the Pilgrims before them, the founding fathers saw in their own struggle against England and its monarchy a reflection of the ancient Israelite story of freedom that will still tell each year on Passover.
Perhaps the thread that runs through all of this, the fundamental building block, is Judaism’s insight that all human beings are created in the image of God. If you believe that, then it also must follow that all human beings are equal, deserving equal treatment, equal rights, freedom, and having an equal say in their own destiny and the destiny of their community. A king has no place in that system of thought, where everyone counts, and everyone, ultimately, has a vote. That one simple yet profound idea was brought into the world by Moses, and many thousands of years later would help the founders of this country, on this day 239 years ago, to sign their names to a document containing this most memorable phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
may that be our destiny for many generations to come –