“When he [the king] is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests.” (Deuteronomy 17:18)
When I was in high school (long ago), I wrote for the school paper. But first I had to take an introduction to journalism class. One of the assignments for the class was to write a sports story. Not having much ability nor interest in sports, I decided to write about a chess match. My teacher refused to accept it at first, until I convinced him that it is a kind of sport. Two opponents are on a battlefield of 64 squares, fighting to capture the other side’s king, so they can triumphantly call “checkmate!” I convinced him. I am sure it was the only sports story he ever received about chess.
In high school and college, I was an avid chess player. Then I gave up the game for over 40 years. I was too emotional, triumphant when I won and depressed when I lost. But recently I decided to take up the game again. I was inspired by the television show The Queen’s Gambit, about a young female (and emotionally unstable) chess prodigy. I felt the game would sharpen my thinking. I now play frequently on chess.com with opponents from around the world. I lose more than I win, but I have learned greater equanimity.
Chess has a fascinating history in Judaism. There is some debate whether the game is mentioned in the Talmud (there seems to be a reference in Ketubot 61b, but this may refer to another game.). Some Orthodox rabbis argue whether it is permissible to play, since it takes away from studying Torah. Bobby Fischer, the greatest American player ever (perhaps the greatest player ever), was born of a Jewish mother. But later in life he became a vicious antisemite, even suing the Encyclopedia Judaica to have his name removed. Gary Kasparov, one of the greatest living players, who lost a match against the Deep Blue computer, had a Jewish father and an Armenian mother.
For those unfamiliar, the object of the game is to trap the enemy king (checkmate.) The king is extremely weak, able to move only one square at a time. But the king has help, a strong queen that can move the length of the board, bishops, knights, rooks, and an army of pawns.
There is something quite Jewish about a king with limited powers. This week’s portion permits the Israelites to appoint a king over the nation. But he was a king with limited powers. He could not have too many horses nor too much money. In a time of polygamy, he could not have too many wives or concubines. And perhaps most important, he had to always keep a copy of the Torah with him, referring to it for all decisions. The power of the king was limited. The Torah already understood the words of Lord Action from the 19th century, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Through much of history, monarchs claimed absolute power. They ruled by the divine right of kings. Shortly I will be seeing the first of the Broadway series Six, about the six wives of King Henry VIII. I know in advance that to be married to the king was not a happy fate. In The Prince, Machiavelli wrote regarding a ruler, “It is better to be feared than to be loved.” It was finally the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke who wrote about the limit of the power of the king, and the right of the people to overthrow a monarch who abused power. Locke’s thought was extremely influential in the American revolution against King George III.
Today there are political leaders throughout the world who seek unlimited, dictatorial powers. The number of despotic rulers seem to be growing. Perhaps the lesson of today, whether from the game of chess or the Torah, is that there must be a limit to a king, a leader, a dictator’s power. It could not hurt if every political leader, everywhere in the world, kept a copy of the Torah next to their bed. Perhaps it would make the world a safer place.