Parshas Shoftim deals with all the potential leaders Bnei Yisrael would have once they entered Eretz Yisrael. Judges, prophets, and kings are a few examples among the different ones discussed. The portion concerning kings is one of the most discussed topics by the commentaries in the parshah. This is because that while in our parshah Hashem treats it as one of the mitzvos, when it came time for Bnei Yisrael to select a king, the response was not as approving.
The pasuk in our parshah says, “כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ” “When you come to the land that Hashem, your God, is giving you, and you possess it and live in I, and you say, ‘I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me’. You shall set a king over you, one whom Hashem, your God, chooses…” (Devarim 17:14-15). In Sefer Shmuel, after many years of being led by Shoftim, Judges, the Bnei Yisrael ask Shmuel HaNavi to appoint a king over them. Shmuel, however, does not approve of their request, and is very upset with them. Based on our pasuk, why should Shmuel have had any problem? The pasuk clearly states that the appointment of a king is not only approved, it’s expected! The Abarbanel brings two possible explanations. First, that they requested a king, “לְשָׁפְטֵנוּ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם” “to judge us like all the nations” (Shmuel I 8:5), and not to judge them like the nation of Hashem. The second way is that our parshah is not making the appointing of a king a mitzvah, but rather Hashem is just telling Bnei Yisrael at this time that later on in history when or if they will want a king, He will approve of it, but they should know that it is still not the optimum.
The Kli Yakar explains that the reason Hashem wanted Bnei Yisrael to have a king was not in order for him to act as the supreme justice over the nation, there were courts set up in every town for that purpose, but rather that there should be a sense of fear amongst the people of the king’s power. As it says in Pirkei Avos, “הוי מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות שאלמלא מוראה, איש את רעהו חיים בלעו” “Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive” (Avos 3:2), having a king around, even if he might not be the one judging, would be very good deterrent to bad behavior. This is what the pasuk in our parshah means, “שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ”, “place a king upon you” (Devarim 17:15), meaning that the fear of him should be upon you.
However, in the times of Shmuel, this was not what the Bnei Yisrael asked for. The pasuk says, “שִׂימָה לָּנוּ מֶלֶךְ”, “appoint for us a king” (Shmuel I 8:5), Bnei Yisrael did not ask for a king that they could respect and fear and who would keep order in the land, rather they wanted a king who would be for them, someone whom they could manipulate and use to their advantage. Not someone to keep them in check but someone whose influence could be used and abused for their own personal gain. The request for this type of king was met with disapproval by Shmuel and with seeming amusement from Hashem who congratulates Shmuel on being so incorruptible that Bnei Yisrael asked for a new, different kind of leader who perhaps could be used.
Later, Shmuel returns to Bnei Yisrael to respond to their request and says, “וַיֹּאמֶר זֶה יִהְיֶה מִשְׁפַּט הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִמְלֹךְ עֲלֵיכֶם” “He (Shmuel) said, ‘This is the protocol of the king who will reign over you” (8:11). With this, he told Bnei Yisrael that their requested leader would not be given to them. They then realize their mistake and respond, “וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹּא כִּי אִם מֶלֶךְ יִהְיֶה עָלֵינוּ” “They said, ‘No! There shall be a king over us” (8:19).
To me, the most interesting part of this whole discussion is what the king of Bnei Yisrael is meant to be, not a judge, but a presence. Perhaps we can apply this to our relationship with Hashem as well. While Hashem obviously judges the whole world and everything contained in it, perhaps He would like us to be able to judge ourselves as well and just be able to act as that “presence” in the world. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, let us be more conscious of our actions, let us be more aware of our surroundings, and let us catch our own mistakes and correct them without needing the Judge to do it for us.
For any questions, comments, or to subscribe to our email list, please email us at AIMeMTorah@gmail.com