Shoftim- Kingship Quandaries

This week’s parsha continues Moshe Rabeinu’s monologue of issues that the Jewish People will face when entering Israel, but shifts to more political topics, discussing leadership, wars, and responsibilities. Within the leadership section, a very unique situation comes up, one which anyone could’ve seen coming but hoped wouldn’t:

כִּי-תָבֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ; וְאָמַרְתָּ, אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ, כְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי

When you will come to the land that G-d will give you and you will inherit it, you will say; Set upon us a king like the surrounding nations.

Given Bnai Yisrael’s stellar track record in the wilderness, it was quite likely that a situation like this would unfold, where the Jewish People would request from G-d something as unusual as a human leader. While it is definitely unusual that G-d would accept this request in such a matter of fact way, what is even more interesting is the reaction to the request:

שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ,

You shall set a king over yourselves

Seemingly, it would be okay for the Jewish People to choose to have a king and have him rule over them, once they enter Eretz Yisrael. This is yet another layer of human leadership that would separate Bnai Yisrael from G-d, and it would distance their relationship even more.

The מפרשים grapple extensively with this issue. Even though there are some guidelines given for the choosing of the king (G-d must choose him, he must be Jewish, etc) and how the king will rule, it seems unusual that a nation that is so closely connected to G-d would want to put a mortal leader between them and their creator. While it is clear from the psukim that the appointment of a king is certainly allowed, the main divide in the commentators is whether or not it is obligatory, optional or a worst-case scenario to appoint a monarch over Israel.

The Netziv, representing the most middle-ground view, teaches that it is in fact a mitzva for the Jewish People to appoint the king, but with a caveat. He writes that indeed there will be a time, after the Jews enter Israel, that they will feel the need for a ruler. At that time, it will become a mitzva to have a king and the monarch will be appointed, under the conditions mentioned in our parsha. Once there is a king requested, not only does it become a responsibility for him to be appointed, but all of the Jewish People also have a responsibility to follow his leadership. We cannot appoint a ruler only to disregard him the minute that we don’t agree with him. This, נצי”ב concludes, is the double-sided nature of “אשימה עלי מלך”- it’s only a מצוה as long as it’s wanted.

Now that we’ve established that appointing a king is a מצוה, at least conditionally, I would like to ask another question; do the conditions under which a king is wanted have an effect on the correctness of this desire? Our פסוקים set out a very specific reason for wanting a king- “ככל הגוים אשר סביבתי- to be like those nation around us.” This does not seem to be the best motivation for wanting a king, especially from a רוחניות perspective. Yet, this is the main source in all of Torah for the appointment of a king, which Rambam designates as the first of the three mitzvot that בני ישראל are commanded on entering ארץ ישראל. Why would a מצוה come out of such a seemingly mundane, borderline incorrect, reason?

In order to try to answer this difficult question, I would like to take a step back and discuss the issue of “ככל הגוים” in a general sense. The Jewish People have managed to survive as a nation throughout the millennia because of our insular nature and our natural mistrust of the outside world. History has shown that those who become too involved with the non-Jewish world and try to become more connected to it at the expense of their Judaism, usually disconnect from the chain of our heritage and are lost from our nation. Yet, the outside world is not entirely evil. Many philosophers like the Rambam even support experiencing the wide world, through research and jobs, while making sure to stay consistent in עבודת השם. This מחשבה would seem to go against the survival instinct that is imbued in the Jewish People- how could this be okay?

The truth is that while many parts of the wider world do not reconcile with our beliefs, the connection between the Jewish and non-Jewish world is not a black and white issue. There are many advantages to letting some of the outside world into the Jewish bubble. Clearly it would be very difficult to earn a פרנסה without the secular world, and their innovations, such as electricity, cars, and electronics have completely changed the way that we see the world and live our lives.

I believe that this philosophy could also apply to the Jewish people’s acceptance of a flesh-and-blood ruler, an idea which is also quite foreign to Judaism. While G-d is our ultimate ruler and His kingship is unquestionable, it is often quite helpful to have a system of human leaders to help keep the order- the establishment of the Sanhedrin, the Shoftim and Shotrim are a part of this. Ideally, the need for an “executive branch” of the government would not be necessary, because G-d is our ruler. However, if Eretz Yisrael would fall into a state of disorder, then the Jewish People, looking at their neighbors’ countries who were more secure and orderly because of their monarchs, would also want to adopt a similar system. Our passuk comes to teach us that despite the fact that “ככל הגוים” would seemingly not be a good reason to do anything, there are some times where it is constructive to adopt some aspects of the outside world, and we are therefore commanded “שום תשים עליך מלך.”