Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
The Institution of Kingship | Parshas Shoftim
Devarim, 17:14-15: “When you come to the land that HaShem, your G-d, gives you, and you will inherit it and you will live in it, and you will say, place on me a King like all the nations who surround me. You will surely place upon yourself a King whom HaShem, your G-d chooses…”
Shmuel Aleph, 8:4-7: “And All the Elders of Israel gathered together and they came to Shmuel Haramasa. And they said to him, ‘behold you are old, and your sons did not go in your ways. Now place for us a King to judge us like all the nations. And the matter was evil in the eyes of Shmuel, when they said, give to us a King to judge us and Shmuel prayed to HaShem. And HaShem said to Shmuel, listen to the voice of the people that which they said to you, because they have not rejected you rather, they have rejected Me from ruling over them.”
In the Parsha, It states that when, in the future, the people will request a King, one should be anointed. This indeed occurred in Sefer Shmuel. However, Shmuel was angry at this request, and HaShem himself also characterized it in a very negative way, reflecting that the people had rejected HaShem. The commentaries discuss at great length why this request was wrong, given that the Torah itself mandated appointing a King.
Before outlining their approaches, it is fist important to note that there is not full agreement as to whether it is even a Mitzva to make a King. Some commentaries note that the Torah does not simply say, ‘make a King’, rather it says that if the people ask for a King, then he should be appointed. The implication is that there is no obligation to make the King, rather if the people want a King, then it is permitted to appoint one. Indeed, there is an opinion in the Gemara that there is no obligation to appoint a King. However, most Rishonim, follow the other opinion in the Gemara that there is a positive Mitzva to appoint a King. The Ramban explains that the reason the Torah precedes the Mitzva with the clause, ‘you will say make for me a King’, is that the Torah is simply stating that this is how it would happen in the future. However, this is not to imply that without the people’s request there would be no Mitzva to make a King.
With regard to the question of why HaShem and Shmuel were so angered by the request, there are a number of explanations:
The Radak states that their error was that they asked for a King ‘like all the nations’ – they wanted a King simply to be similar to the non-Jewish nations who all had Kings. However, the obvious question on this answer is that the Torah itself says they will ask for a King like all the nations, so why is that so problematic? One way to answer this is based on the aforementioned Ramban that the Torah is merely stating the future course of events, but is not suggesting that this was the correct way to ask for a King.
Another answer focuses on one extra word that the people used in their request to Shmuel - ‘leshafteinu’, meaning to judge us. They wanted the King to judge them like the non-Jewish Kings, based on common sense laws, as opposed to the laws of the Torah. This was their mistake – the Jewish King is supposed to guide the people based on the Torah laws, and a significant part of his role is to ensure that the people properly observe the Torah. However, the people were not interested in this aspect of Kingship, rather they simply wanted a King in the mold of the nations.
Another approach is found in the the Sifri which enigmatically states that the reason they were punished for asking for a King is because ‘hikdimu’, meaning they requested too early. The Malbim explains that they should not have asked for a King at that time: The Mitzva to appoint a King only applied when the people were living according to the regular laws of nature, because then they would need a King to guide them in communal matters, to fight their wars, and to judge them. However, in the time of Shmuel, they were living beyond the laws of nature – HaShem, so to speak, was leading them in wars, meaning that their success in war was beyond the regular laws of nature. They were able to live on this level while the great Shmuel was leading them, and only after his death, should they have requested a King. This, the Malbim explains, is what the Sifri means, when it says they asked for a King too early.
The Kli Yakar offers yet another explanation of the peoples’ error. He notes that in the Torah, it states that the people should ask, ‘place upon me a King’, whereas when the people requested the King, they said, ‘place for us a King’. The difference is that when the Torah mandates asking for a King, It means that the King should be above the people, and they should be subservient to him. However, they did not want to be subservient to the King, rather they wanted a King to serve them and fight their wars for them – hence they said that he should a King ‘for us’. Shmuel rebuked them for this request, and stressed to them the many ways in which they would be subservient to the King. They then realized their mistake, and changed their language, later asking for a King to be ‘upon us’.
Regardless of the exact nature of their error, it is clear that the people sinned in the way that they went about demanding a King. Yet, it is not obviously apparent if they were punished for this. The Ramban explains that they were punished in that they received the ‘wrong’ King. The Torah states that the King should be from the Tribe of Yehuda, but because the people asked in the wrong way, they were given a King from a different Tribe, whose Kingship was destined to be temporary.
It seems that the underlying mistake that the people made was that they did not recognize the unique aspect of the Jewish King, as opposed to the Kings of the Nations. The Jewish King’s role, in addition to the regular functions of fighting wars and leading the nation, was to guide the people in the ways of the Torah. Nowadays, we do not have Kings in the Torah sense of term, but the people’s flawed attitude teaches an important lesson in how we view leaders and role models. Our leaders are not supposed to simply fulfil our will, rather a Torah-true leader is supposed to guide the people in Fear of G-d and avodas HaShem. This applies to leaders of the community and Rabbis – our role is not to want a Rabbi simply to perform pastoral functions such as weddings and funerals, rather to push us to grow. The mistake of the people in the time of Shmuel should serve as a stark reminder of what we should look for in a leader.
-Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen