WE THE PEOPLE
In 1787, fifty-five delegates from twelve states met in Philadelphia to reform the Articles of Confederation. The loose confederation of the former colonies had proved to be too weak to protect and administer the states.
In 1787, fifty-five delegates from twelve states met in Philadelphia to reform the Articles of Confederation. The loose confederation of the former colonies had proved to be too weak to protect and administer the states. England was still harassing her former colonies, and skirmishes with Indian tribes proved to be damaging. Furthermore, as each state negotiated separate treaties and trade agreements with foreign powers, the states began to fight amongst themselves over trade routes and economic policy. Therefore, the delegates met in the summer of 1787 to form a strong central government and produced the Constitution of the United States.
A rather similar state of events ensued in ancient Israel. Roughly 150 years after the Jews had entered the Promised Land under Joshua's leadership, the political situation was still unstable. Many parts of the land remained under Cannanite control, and aggressor nations were pushing at the borders from all directions. There was no formal leadership present; rather ad hoc leaders would arise to awaken the people to repentance and thereby remedy the immanent crisis. As soon as the situation would quiet down, the nation would return to its sinful ways. The book of Judges relates the numerous times when this cycle of events repeated itself. Internally, the situation was not much better. The latter third of the book of Judges relates scandal after scandal which took place in ancient Israel. The common refrain throughout these incidents is the verse: "And it was in those days there was no king in Israel, each man did as was just in his eyes" (Judges 17:7).
Spiritually, the nation was in shambles as well. The Temple in Jerusalem was not even being dreamt of, as Jerusalem itself was not under Jewish control. The Mishkan (Tabernacle) which the Jews had built in the desert had been destroyed, and the Ark had been moving from place to place, even spending seven months in the hands of the Philistines! Clearly, a major change was needed.
The people of ancient Israel realized, as did the framers of the Constitution, that a new system of government was needed. The new government would have to unify all the citizens together so that they could work for a common cause. However, unlike the Founding Fathers who had to create a new form of government, the Jewish people knew exactly which type of government they should set up. They looked in this week's Torah portion and read what Moses had instructed their forefathers in the desert: "When you come to the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, and possess it, and settle in it, and you will say, 'I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.' You shall surely set over yourself a king whom Hashem, your G-d, shall choose; from among your brethren shall you set a king over yourself" (Deuteronomy 17:14-15). They must have felt that they were on the right track, for they knew the law that before the Temple could be built they needed to establish the monarchy.
Hence, it must have been with great excitement and enthusiasm that the leaders of Israel approached the prophet Samuel to ask for a king. This day was to mark the birth of a unified nation and a rebirth of the people, leading to the building of the Temple. They must have anticipated with great excitement that Samuel would bless Hashem for providing him the opportunity to anoint a king, and then proceed with all the glory and fanfare that was befitting, to announce that the search for the first king of Israel had begun.
Surprisingly, Samuel's response was very different. The book of Samuel teaches us that the matter troubled Samuel greatly. However, more surprising than Samuel's own rejection of the idea is what Hashem Himself tells Samuel, that it is not he (Samuel) who the Jews are seeking to replace; rather it is G-d Himself that the Jews are dissatisfied with (I Samuel 8:7-9). Samuel proceeds to scare the Jews out of wanting a king, explaining that the king would have the right to raise significant taxes, and take the best of the produce for himself (a seemingly reoccurring problem of central governments).
The people must have raced to the nearest Torah scroll to re-examine the verses from this week's Torah portion. No matter how many times they re-read the verses (quoted above), they reached the same conclusion, that Moses had commanded them in the desert to appoint a king. Why then was Hashem so upset with them now? Why is He speaking of being rejected? Did He not command that we appoint a king?
This glaring difficulty is dealt with by nearly all commentators on both this week's Torah portion and the book of Samuel. One approach is offered by the Ran, a 14th century Spanish commentator and philosopher, in his Derashot (Essays). In Essay 11 the Ran expounds on the dual system of government found in Jewish law. The Prophets/Judges were to lead the people based on the law as expounded upon in the Torah. Torah law was to be the primary law of the land. However, the political framework under which they were to operate was to be provided by a king.
For example, if the Torah law were (as is often the case) to provide a loophole by which a guilty felon would go unpunished, the king - under the Torah mandate of maintaining social order - would be able to punish him. Further, the king was to "insure the domestic tranquility" so that the people could focus on its goal of becoming a light unto the nations. The Prophets/Judges were responsible for providing the spiritual, moral, and legal guidance to the people, while the king was to provide the political backdrop for the system to function.
It was on this point that the Jews made a mistake. Looking closely at the verses describing the Jewish people's request for a king, the Ran notices that they ask for a king "who shall judge us like all the nations". Asking for a political framework like the other nations was not wrong, in fact that is what Hashem had commanded. Rather Hashem was upset that they wanted to be judged like other nations. The Jews wanted the king to establish courts based on common law that would promote social justice, they did not want the Prophets/Judges to lead them based on the laws of the Torah. They did not only want a king like all other nations, but they wanted the collective psyche of the people to shift from one that is nurtured by the Prophets/Judges to one which is dominated by the king. Hence, it is now clear why Hashem becomes incensed at their request and tells Samuel that it is Him who the Jews are really rejecting.
Hashem did indeed command Moses to tell us to establish a monarchy. The king was supposed to strengthen the nation politically and economically, as to prepare the nation for becoming a world power. It was then the responsibility of the Prophets and Judges to use the position of world leader to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people, to sanctify Hashem in this world. The mistake of the Jewish people of that time was that they sought to transfer not only the political, but the spiritual leadership as well, to the king.
The lesson that the Jews learned from Samuel is still applicable today. As we have mentioned, Hashem Himself commands us to appoint a king. He acknowledges that the framework and setting of our lives may in fact be "like the nations surrounding you". However, the internal affairs of the people, how we use the framework provided to us to serve Hashem, must be guided by the Torah.
Chaim Saiman, a native Atlantan and recent graduate of Georgia State University, attends Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel and serves as the editor of Alei Etzion.
Would you recommend this article to a friend? Let us know by sending an e-mail to email@example.com