“And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, he shall write [for] himself the text of this law in a scroll, out of that which is before the Kohanim the Levites” (Devarim 17:18). What is meant by “out of that which is before the Kohahim”?
The Ralbag suggests that the reference is to the Torah Scroll described in Parshat Vayelech (Devarim 31:9). There we are told that Moshe wrote a Torah scroll, and gave it to the Kohanim and to the Elders of Israel (= Sanhedrin). Further on (Devarim 31:26), instructions are given to place this Torah with the Ark (ארון) in the Tabernacle. Evidently, this Torah was the authoritative copy, referred to in rabbinic literature as the “sefer ha-azarah“, “the book of the Temple courtyard” (see Keilim 15: 6; Rashi Bava Bathra 14b s.v. ספר עזרה). When the king writes a “royal” Sefer Torah, it is proofread against the authoritative copy which was “before the Kohanim” (Devarim 17:18), namely the Torah presented to the Kohanim and the Sanhedrin (= the elders of Israel). Accordingly, Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 2:6) states: The King proofreads his Torah against the Temple copy under the authority of the Sanhedrin of seventy-one (Rambam, Hil. Sefer Torah 7:2, Hil. Melachim 3:1).
What is the purpose of this royal Sefer Torah? The Torah (Devarim 17:19-20) immediately explains: “It shall be with him, and he shall read it all his life, so that he will learn to fear Hashem his G-d, to keep all the words of this Torah, and these statutes to do them. Lest his mind become arrogant over his fellow, and lest he veer from the commandments to the right or to the left“. In the ancient polytheistic world, a monarch was often viewed as a deity, not only by his subjects but even by himself! After all, was he not omnipotent and subservient to none, and hence an equal of the gods?
It does not take too much imagination to envisage where such an attitude can lead. But the Torah’s monarch is different. From the start he must write a royal Torah scroll to impress upon himself that even as King, he is a subject of Hashem and bound by the Torah’s laws, just like all the Jews. And he has to take this Torah scroll with him wherever he goes (Rambam, Hil. Sefer Torah 7:2, Hil. Melachim 3:1). Just in case he has a memory lapse and starts to “lord it” over his subjects, they will point to the Torah he is carrying and remind him that he is mortal just like them. And even when he is alone pondering matters of state, he will see the Torah that must be with him at all times, and remember his limitations.
Whether or not the Torah sees a monarchy as the ideal form of government (see Abravanel), it is clear that whatever form of government is leading the Jewish state, the head of the state must be informed by the humility, moderation, and fear of G-d, demanded by the Torah of a monarch. We hope and pray that one day, when the State of Israel finally elects a G-d fearing Jew to serve as Prime Minister, that Prime Minister will not allow power to go to his head, and will instead sanctify the name of Hashem as never before, by leading an entire nation to follow his example in serving Hashem.