Parashat Ha-melekh

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

YESHIVAT HAR ETZION

ISRAEL KOSCHITZKY VIRTUAL BEIT MIDRASH (VBM)

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INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA 

 

by Rav Joshua Amaru

 

 

PARASHAT SHOFTIM

 

 

Parashat Ha-melekh

 

"If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, 'I will set a king over me as do all the nations about me:' You shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.  Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman: Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, 'You must not go back that way again:' And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess:

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests.  Let it remain with him and let him read in it all of his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws: Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel" (Devarim 17:14-20, JPS translation).

 

What is the ideal political system?  This week's parasha provides the only explicit discussion of political theory in the whole Written Torah.  Even in the Torah she-ba'al peh the discussion of the form and nature of government is sparse (mostly a few sections in the second chapter of masekhet Sanhedrin).  We will discuss the reason for the Torah's seeming lack of interest in political issues towards the end of this shiur.  First, we will investigate what the Torah does say by means of a close reading of 'parashat ha-melekh.'

 

Is Monarchy a Mitzva?

 

At first blush, the very asking of this question feels vaguely heretical.  Every day we pray for the reinstitution of the throne of David.  Does that not imply that monarchy is Judaism's ideal form of government?  As a matter of fact, there is a disagreement (machloket) among the Tanaim whether there is a mitzva to establish a monarchy (Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:c).  In order to understand the machloket, we need to go back to the verses in our parasha and see how each side interprets them.  The key to this question lies in understanding the relationship between the first two verses of parashat ha-melekh:

 

pasuk 14:

"If (When) after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, 'I will set a king over me as do all the nations about me.'"

 

pasuk 15:

"You shall be free to (You shall surely) set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God..."

 

The first word of pasuk 14, "Ki" can be interpreted in two ways.  If we follow the JPS translation (if), then the whole verse is understood as a conditional clause: "If, after you have settled the land, you ask for a king..."  This reading influences our reading of the beginning of the next verse: "Som tasim alekha melekh..." as permission to appoint a king ("you shall be free to..."), with the qualifications as elaborated below (not too many wives, not too many horses, etc.).  The institution of monarchy is not a mitzva or even a desideratum - the Torah allows Am Yisrael to have a king in order to satisfy their desire to be like "all the nations about me."  The institution of monarchy appears, according to this interpretation, to be not more than a concession to the will of the people to imitate their neighbors - instead of forbidding it entirely, the Torah allows it under certain specific limiting conditions.

 

If we interpret the word "ki" as 'when,' as opposed to 'if,' the meaning of these verses undergoes a significant change.  The Torah is not responding to a hypothetical demand on the part of the people for a king but laying out the preconditions under which setting up a monarchy is mandated: After the land has been conquered and settled, and the people begin to feel a need for a king (more on this important qualification later!), the Torah commands: "Som tasim alekha melekh...," "You shall surely set a king over yourself..."  Under this reading, instituting a monarchy is not a concession to the people's weakness but an important stage in Am Yisrael's development as a people.  Upon reaching this stage, there is a commandment to appoint a king, though the Torah is careful to define and limit this king's powers - he is not some oriental potentate but the leader of the people who must rule according to the Torah.

 

These two interpretations of the pesukim are reflected in the different positions quoted in the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 4c):

 

R. Yehuda says: Bnei Yisrael were commanded to fulfill three mitzvot upon entering the land: To appoint a king, to build the Temple and to destroy the descendants of Amalek...  R. Nehorai says: This passage (parashat ha-melekh) was only in response to their (the people's) complaint, as it says "I will set a king over me..."

 

R. Yehuda understands the pesukim to imply a mitzva to appoint a king, while R. Nehorai views them as granting no more than permission to do so.  This machloket continues among the Rishonim.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:1), and most of the other Rishonim follow R. Yehuda's opinion and hold that there is a positive commandment to appoint a king under the appropriate circumstances.  The Abarbanel defends R. Nehorai's position in a fascinating (and lengthy) discourse that includes interpretation of the pesukim, classical and contemporary political philosophy, and reference to the political situation of his time (see the Abarbanel's commentary to I Samuel chap. 8).

 

Besides representing different readings of the pesukim, these two positions reflect broader issues that arise when we weigh the value the Torah gives to monarchy as a political system.  On the one hand, as mentioned above, it is clear that the tradition assigns great import to malkhut beit David - the monarchy of David's house.  We pray for its return, we believe that yemot ha-mashiach will entail its re-establishment, and read in other books of Tanakh (namely Shmuel, Melakhim, Divrei Ha-yamim, and many references throughout Nevi'im and Ketuvim) of its importance and permanence.  All of this supports R. Yehuda's position.  On the other hand, the verses in Shmuel (I Samuel, chap. 8) imply a much less positive attitude towards the monarchy.  When the people demand a king, Shmuel is displeased and prays to God.  God responds: "Heed the demand of the people in everything they say to you.  For it is not you they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king" (I Samuel 8:7, JPS translation).  These pesukim seem to imply that setting up a monarchy is a rejection of God's rule and that God's allowing a monarchy should be viewed as concession to the people's weakness.  In these pesukim we find support for R. Nehorai's opinion (see the Tosefta for two answers that can be given according to R. Yehuda).  It would appear that instead of clarifying our understanding of the Torah's political theory we have further confused it.  One opinion claims that the Torah basically rejects monarchy but is willing to allow it on popular demand, under certain limiting conditions.  The other opinion has a positive attitude towards monarchy - indeed there is a mitzva to appoint a king - but the king must follow certain rules and behave in a certain way.  It would be presumptuous of us to decide between these two opinions.  In the following we will try to put them in context, and try to understand how such a seemingly crucial issue is left so unclear.  First, let us take a look at the limitations the Torah imposes on the king, and at the instructions it has for his behavior.

 

Constitutional Monarchy

 

In the ancient Middle East, the king very often knew no limitations - his word was law for everyone but himself.  In Egypt (and other places) the king was considered one of the gods.  In contrast, the king, according to the Torah, is not above the law.  Not only must he keep the Torah, there are special mitzvot which apply only to him and which seem directed at avoiding two things: foreign influence and the corruption that so often is associated with power.

 

"...You must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman: Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, 'You must not go back that way again.'  And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess."

 

The first rule is not a limitation of what the king can do but a limitation as to who can be a candidate for the kingship.  It is not surprising, given the emphasis in Sefer Devarim on avoiding foreign influence that will lead into avoda zara, that the king must be a fellow Jew.  The other rules seem to be directed at potential abuses.  The gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) explains that the king may have as many horses and gold and silver he needs - but he is prohibited to amass wealth or military power (presumably at the expense of his subjects) for their own sakes, as a flamboyant expression of his power.  In addition, he must be wary of a particular temptation of a king - not to return the people to Egypt.  He is forbidden a large harem (a normal expression of power in the ancient Middle East) because of the danger this entails - "lest his heart go astray."  Presumably, this refers to the danger of foreign influence from political marriages (e.g., Shlomo Ha-melekh) as well as to the potential for moral corruption in a marital life that knows no limitations.  The overall impression one gets from these prohibitions is that the Torah is wary of the king's abuse of power for two reasons: 1. that he will lead the people astray (this would certainly be a problem for many of the kings in Sefer Melakhim).  2. that he himself will be morally corrupted and become arrogant (which will perhaps result in him leading the people astray).

 

This second concern is emphasized in the second half of parashat ha-melekh:

 

"When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.  Let it remain with him and let him read in it all of his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this teaching as well as these laws: Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants nay reign long in the midst of Israel."

 

The Torah is very aware of the corrupting influence of power and warns the king to beware.  The king is not exempt from the law, rather he is instructed to pay special attention to it.  As leader of the people, he must be their leader in keeping the Torah.

 

The Will of the People and God's Will

 

Until now we have discussed the legal obligations of the king without reference to the basis of his authority.  The king is appointed by the people - "Som tasim ALEKHA melekh."  Even according to the opinion that there is a mitzva to appoint a king, this mitzva is only operative upon the people's demand - there is no mitzva to force a king on the people (see the Netziv in Ha-amek Davar Devarim 17:14 who expands upon this point).  The idea that the basis of the king's authority lies in the people's acceptance seems obvious today, but in its time, this idea was positively revolutionary.  The idea that the king's continuing rule is not automatic or 'divine right' is emphasized in another place: Rashi, in his commentary on the verse "that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel." (17:20) notes "he and his sons, saying that if his son is worthy of the throne he is prior to all others (based on the Bavli Horayot 11b)."  Even the succession is not an absolute right of the king's - his son only has priority over other candidates but his succession is not automatic.

 

Let us return to our original question.  Why does the Torah relate in such a limited way to political thought?  Even according to the opinion that instituting the monarchy is a mitzva, the Torah gives us almost no information as to how government should be set up.  All we have are a few isolated prohibitions relating to the king's behavior and a general exhortation for the king to keep the Torah.  Compare that with (lehavdil) ancient Greek thought for which politics is perhaps the most central issue (e.g., Plato's Republic).  The answer to this question, and indeed the key to our understanding of parashat ha-melekh, requires us to look at these pesukim in their broader context.  Until now, we have been relating to parashat ha-melekh as if it were a description of a normal secular political system.  In this context, one could evaluate the political system as briefly described in the Torah, and point out its strengths and weaknesses, etc.  However, the Torah is not interested in secular political institutions, or in politics per se.  The monarchy, as described in our parasha, is in not the best way to run a government but a detail in the relationship between Am Yisrael and their real king, God.  Though the monarchy requires the consent of the people, the king himself is chosen by God.  Monarchy is a mitzva or at the least a valid option when the sanhedrin is sitting in "the place that God will choose" and when there are prophets to communicate God's will.  The danger of monarchy is that it will cause the people to forget who is their real king, as we see in the pesukim in Shmuel - "For it is not you they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king."  The disagreement between the Tannaim as to whether ultimately there is a mitzva to appoint a king turns on whether the advantages of a king - as a unifying national symbol and as a national leader - outweigh these dangers.  The real king of Am Yisrael must be God and monarchy is only a value when we, the people, recognize this.  Thus, we can explain the absence of any concrete instruction in the Torah as to the ideal political system.  The political system of the Torah is not monarchy nor oligarchy nor democracy but malkhut shamayim.  The king is subordinate to the King of Kings, and the Torah does go to great lengths in describing how Am Yisrael should relate to Him.  The Torah is not concerned with human political systems because the ideal is the kingship of God.  Parashat ha-melekh comes to teach us that within the context of this overriding ideal, there is room for human political institutions, perhaps ideally a monarchy, led by a king who does "not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left..."

 

In this essay, we have tried to explain the primary message (in my opinion) to be learned from parashat ha-melekh.  We have not dealt with more contemporary issues which relate to our own non-ideal reality, like the halakhic status of democracy (obviously a great many democratic values exist in and are derived from the Torah but that is not to say that the Torah is clearly pro-democracy), or what is the value of Jewish self-government which does not realize the ideal of divine rule.  These are important issues but we have chosen to avoid them and to concentrate on understanding the pesukim in their context.  These pesukim deal with monarchy.  Whether monarchy is an ideal remains an open question, though the weight of opinion throughout the generations leans toward a positive answer to this question.  It is certain, though, that the higher ideal is that of malkhut shamayim, of the kingdom of heaven, under which the specific form of human government is only a detail.