Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 22 August 2020 / 2 Elul 5780

Shoftim - Jewish Kingship

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The commandment to appoint a king has a very interesting condition precedent. It is operative only after the people conquer the land, take possession of it and dwell in it. Then, when the people will say, “I will set a king forever over me, like all the other nations around me,” the people shall appoint a king.

We might have thought that the purpose of a king is to aid in the conquest and division of the land, in the establishment of the initial law and order. But the language here indicates that the king is to be appointed only after this phase. Equally perplexing is the language of Israel’s request for a king — motivated by the desire to be “like all the other nations around me.” This language is all the more enigmatic in light of the events which occurred during the time of Samuel, when the people did ask for a king just like the nations around them, but were sternly rebuked for doing so.

Clearly, the task of a Jewish king — unlike the other nations — is not conquest. Only G-d gives the Land to Israel, and only with G-d’s help can Israel conquer the land and dwell safely in it under His protection. This help, protection, and blessing are promised to Israel again and again in the Torah, and to merit them, the Jewish People have to do but one thing — be loyal Jews. The internal victory will lead to the victory against the external enemies.

Only after this milestone is achieved, and only after the need for the appointment arises, is there a mitzvah to appoint a king. Only then will the people properly appreciate a king and not regard it as a loss of independence. This need, as envisioned by the Torah, would arise only when the people sought to ensure the sole factor on which G-d’s protection rests — loyalty to Torah.

When the people saw fit to safeguard the people’s loyalty, the people would then ask for a king “like all the other nations.” All nations seek to unify their resources for the good of the nation and enlist a governing figure to enable the subordination required for that end. So too, Israel will feel the necessity for national unity in order to obtain the greatest possible good — the complete fulfillment of Torah. The function of the Jewish king, then, was, by personal example and other means, to engender greater allegiance to the Torah.

Although the people in Samuel’s time seemed to follow the verbal formula, by asking for a king like the other nations, their intent was to elect a king to protect them from external enemies. The time for a king had not yet come, since the conquest was not complete. They ignored the fact that protection comes from G-d, and that the king’s mission was to assist in nurturing the allegiance to Torah required to merit that blessing. Thus, the people at the time of Samuel were faulted for requesting a king to lead them in defense of the country. This, warned Samuel, 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.” But if his role is not military, and the judicial and executive infrastructure already functions 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, the Torah.

  • Source: Commentary, Devarim 17:14

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