Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 30 December 2017 / 12 Tevet 5778

Parshat Vayechi

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Jewish Monarchy

As Yaakov nears his death, he calls his children together to “tell them what will happen to them at the end of days.” However, such information is never imparted. Instead, Yaakov blesses each one in accordance with his characteristic diversity. But in the blessing of Yehuda, the tribe from which King David and Mashiach will descend, a vision of the end of days is alluded to.

He ties his foal to the grapevine, his she-donkey’s colt to the choice vine-branch. (Bereishet 49:11) Yaakov envisions the redeemer of mankind riding, not on a horse, but on a young donkey. Whereas a horse represents military might, the donkey, the beast of burden, represents peaceful prosperity. The donkey carries man and property calmly and peacefully.

The purpose and pride of a Jewish king is not his military prowess. This is why the Torah forbids him from acquiring too many horses. In fact, the commandment to appoint a king applied only after complete conquest and settlement of the Land, underscoring that his purpose is not primarily military. Thus, the people at the time of Shmuel were faulted for requesting a king to lead them in defense of the country — this, warned Shmuel, is the province of the Almighty King.

What then is the purpose of a Jewish king? The Torah instructs us to appoint a king “over us.” (Devarim 17:15) But if his role is not military, and the judicial and executive infrastructure already function without a king, what does it mean for a king to be “over” his subjects? Unlike the ruling bodies of other nations, the Jewish crown does not represent the sum total of the national will. Instead, the king is to ensure that the will of the nation bends to the law of Torah. His task is to be a Jew par excellence. In this way, he will be “over” the people — by leading the nation to constant awareness of and steadfast commitment to Torah.

An examination of the root letters of the Hebrew word for king — “melech” (mem-lamed-chaf) — as compared to the Hebrew word for ruler — “moshel” (mem-shin-lamed)leads to a fascinating distinction. Many of the Hebrew letters have a clear meaning by themselves. Thus, the letter mem means “derived from” — and when it is added to the beginning of a word it means “from ____.” The letter lamed means “to” and the letter chaf denotes “example” or “model”. Thus, the Jewish vision of a king is this: everything comes from him; everything reverts to him, and he is an example and ideal for all. By contrast, moshel lacks the letter chaf — he is not a personal or moral example. If we were to survey the ruling personalities of the past century, would we put a chaf in their title? The very word politician has a derogatory connotation and conjures up memories of schemes and corruption.

We find the final earthly king riding on a young donkey. He arrives as the emissary of peace. Where does he tie his young animal? To a vine! That vine must be at least as strong as a tree to bear the weight and sway of a frisky young foal. This sturdy vine is a sign of great prosperity and abundance. The two symbols of the end of days are the donkey — world peace — and the vine — great abundance.

The prophet Zechariah describes Masiach not as a warrior, conqueror or politician. This king is a tzaddik, a righteous man, and he is a poor man riding on a donkey, on a foal of a she-donkey. (Zechariah 9:9) His is not the gallop of the mighty horse, but the soft steps of the foal, carrying peace and prosperity on the back of his righteousness.

  • Sources: Commentary Bereishet, 49:11; 10:10; Collected Writings IV, pp. 275-77

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