The Essence of A Jewish King

Among the mitzvos taught in this week’s parashah are those of appointing a king.

Chazal (Sanhedrin 20b) relate that there are differing views whether it is an actual obligation for the Bnei Yisrael to appoint a king — the Rambam rules according this opinion  — or whether the Torah is informing us that eventually Klal Yisrael will make this demand, and gives them permission to do so.

Centuries later, Bnei Yisrael demanded a king of their own.

The elders approached Shmuel Hanavi and told him (Shmuel I 8:5) “You are old, and your sons did not follow in your ways. So now appoint us a king to judge us, like all the nations.”

Shmuel Hanavi found this request to be a wrong one, and after he davened to Hashem about it, Hashem told him, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you whom they have rejected, but it is Me that they have rejected from reigning over them.”

Many of the meforshim wonder, what was wrong with the request of Am Yisrael?

The Torah specifically tells us in this week’s parashah (Devarim 17:15) “You shall surely set over yourself a king.” Even according to the view that this wasn’t an actual obligation, Klal Yisrael certainly had the Torah’s permission to do so.

One explanation given by the meforshim is that the timing was very wrong: To request a king while Shmuel Hanavi was still alive was exhibited a lack of respect and gratitude to this great tzaddik. Had they waited to make this request after his petirah, it would have been acceptable.

Other meforshim explain that the reason they gave, “appoint us a King to judge us, like all the nations,” was where they erred.

A Jewish king isn’t supposed to be chosen for his abilities to lead forces into battle, but for his righteousness. The king the Torah had instructed Am Yisrael to appoint was to be a spiritual leader, a tzaddik who would help ensure that they stay on the right path and whose merit would shield and protect them.

In contrast, some of those who made the request of Shmuel Hanavi indicated that they wanted a leader “like all the nations,” a leader who would lead with personal capabilities and military might.

It wasn’t that all of Am Yisrael erred at the time. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 20b) teaches that the elders requested a king to “judge us,” — a spiritual ruler who would punish wrongdoers.

But the am haaratzim of the generation ruined it by requesting a king who would lead them into battle, a request that exhibited a lack of bitachon in Hashem.

The Arugas Habosem adds another very relevant aspect.

In reality, Hashem is our King.

When the Torah teaches us about appointing a mortal king, this represents powers given to this individual by Hashem.

In contrast, a king “like all the nations,” is an individual whose powers are given to him by the masses.

One key difference between the two is whether a king should acclimate himself and adapt to the changing winds of his era. A king whose powers come from the people would have to adjust and change his positions according to the whims of the population.

A king who serves as a messenger from Hashem, however, is guided solely by the Will of the Ribbono shel Olam and is wholly unaffected by the changing moods of his subjects.

Am Yisrael erred in requesting the wrong type of king. They wanted someone who would abide by their desires.

“You are old,” they told Shmuel Hanavi, indicating that he no longer understood the desires of a “new generation.”

“Your sons did not follow in your ways,”  they continued, trying to bring proof to their premise that the younger generation was taking a different path.

Shmuel Hanavi found this very disturbing, and Hashem said, “It is not you whom they have rejected, but it is Me that they have rejected from reigning over them.”

For the Torah is an eternal, unchangeable truth. 

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Friday is the yahrtzeit of Harav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, the legendary founder of Mesivta Torah Vodaas, Beis Medrash Elyon and Torah Umesorah, who played a key role in the establishment of many other yeshivos and organizations, too.

When he undertook to establish Mesivta Torah Vodaas, he faced enormous opposition. People told him that it was a crazy dream; that it was impossible to create a yeshivah in America along the lines of the great yeshivos of Europe.

Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, described Harav Shraga Feivel as the “father of all [American] bnei Torah in this generation and the coming generations.”

The Satmar Rebbe, Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zy”a, said of him, “Reb Feivel planted the first seed of Torah in America, and from this seed everything grew … Only thanks to this first planting was it possible for those who came later to spread Torah and Yiddishkeit here.”

One of his critics once accused him of not being a man of the 20th century.

“You’re right,” Harav Shraga Feivel calmly answered him. “I am a man of the 21st century.”

With mesirus nefesh and a lofty level of bitachon he persevered, and accomplished the impossible.