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A QUESTION OF ROYALTY

by Yitzchak Grant    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Hundreds of years after their conquest of the land of Israel, the Children of Israel approach Samuel, their great prophet and leader, and ask him for a king.

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Hundreds of years after their conquest of the land of Israel, the Children of Israel approach Samuel, their great prophet and leader, and ask him for a king. The prophet records (I Samuel 8:5) that Samuel did not like their request, and the next verse informs us that "the thing was evil in the eyes of Samuel when they said give us a king to judge us."

These events seem to present a fundamental contradiction with the command in this week's Torah portion that, upon their arrival in the land of Israel, the Jewish people should appoint a king (Deuteronomy 17:14). It seems to be a mitzvah for them to appoint a king. True, the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 20b) records a dispute between Rav Yochanan and Rav Nahorai as to whether the appointment of a king is obligatory or only optional, but either way it still is a mitzvah. The question we must ask ourselves is why is Samuel so upset at the Children of Israel for requesting something the Torah explicitly commands them to do?

Upon examining their request, we might be taken aback by the conclusion to their statement: "Place for us a king to judge us like all the other nations." Imitation of the nations does not sound like the proper reason for the Jewish people to want a king. However, the truth is that this part of the request is a direct quote from the verse in the Torah as to what they should say when they request a king. Furthermore, when the verse describes why Samuel is unhappy with the people's request, it simply says that he was distraught when they said "Give us a king to judge us," making no reference to their wanting to be like the rest of the nations. The question therefore resurfaces: What was wrong with their request?

The Malbim, a classic 19th century commentary on the entire Bible, provides a fascinating answer which offers us a deep insight into some of the other mistakes we have made and continue to make today. According to the Malbim, the problem with the request was not in what they asked, but rather in when they asked it. Appointing a king is a mitzvah when the Children of Israel are in need of a king to facilitate their proper service of Hashem. A king was necessary for a time when the Jewish people had fallen from the elevated spiritual level of living with Hashem and directly experiencing His miracles.

In the days of Samuel, says the Malbim, the Jewish people felt that they were no longer capable of living with Hashem in such a direct manner. The more direct the connection is with Hashem, the more He demands in terms of keeping His mitzvot and learning His Torah. To live constantly in the Divine King's private chamber requires a constant high standard of dress and conduct. They felt that they could no longer live up to such high standards and that it was only possible for the previous generations. As a result they asked for a king. However, argued Samuel, the truth was that the Jewish people were still holding on that high level. They just were not interested in accepting the obligations inherent in such a relationship with G-d. They were looking for an easier life with less responsibilities.

We often find ourselves with the same problem. Often we feel that we are not holding on a level not because we truly are not, but because we just don't want to be. It is our responsibility to view ourselves objectively and want to live on a higher level and not try to take the easy way out.

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Yitzchak Grant, after spending the summer in Atlanta, returned this week to his studies at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.

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