SHOFTIM, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Not imitating the other nations of the world is a fundamental Judaic concept. The Torah forbids bodily mutilation as a foreign practice, as it does several specific hair styles and idolatrous rites. The Jewish people, instead, should remain unique, pious in thought as well as action.
So it comes as a surprise when in this week's portion, following commands related to the functioning of a court-based legal system, the Torah actually condones the request of the people to "set a king over me, as do all the nations about me."
Later in the Book of I Samuel, when the people demand the prophet to "appoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations," they're derided by God for rejecting his sovereignty.
It's as if the Divinely given law is either suffering from some sort of split personality or is passive-aggressive in its dealing with the question of a Jewish king. Is the establishment of the monarchy, later typified in all its greatness with the throne of King David, a necessary evil? Is it something merely condoned by scripture as a natural outgrowth of the human condition?
Or is a functioning monarchy a Heavenly precept, a prerequisite for perfecting the world and the consequence of another command in this week's portion: "Justice, justice shall you pursue?"
Commentators seem to be split themselves on the issue, with Nachmanides and the Or HaChayim explaining that the Torah allows the existence of a king, with certain limitations — he cannot have many wives or have an overabundance of material wealth — but does not command to establish a monarchy. Maimonides and the Kli Yakar, on the other hand, view the monarchy as an obligation, one of three commands incumbent on the entire Jewish people after conquering the Land of Israel.
Many of the commentaries note that when the people actually do request a king of Samuel, their intent is not to fulfill the precepts found in the Torah: They're fed up with the prophet and want to be like all the nations around them. They want to be idolaters and they want a king who will condone such actions.
But the concept of a king found in this week's portion is entirely different. Far from a figurehead, the king is a righteous individual who is commanded to keep a second copy of the Torah with him at all times. He's a teacher, as well as a warrior; a living example, like Moses, of piety.
It's interesting that the Torah ties the request for a king to a period following the conquering and settling of the land. The message is that it's precisely at that time, after a campaign of waging war and emerging victorious, that the people can become complacent in their religious lives. They might mistakenly assume that their victory resulted from their own prowess in battle, instead of in the power of the One Above.
The solution is to appoint a king, who can instruct the people in the proper service of the Almighty and serve as the model of supreme sovereignty. Just as a king's commands must be obeyed without question or thought, so, too, true Torah service demands accepting, in the language of the Sages, the yoke of Heaven.
This message has relevance in our lives. All too often, each one of us is lured into thinking that we are the center of the universe, that our success is entirely dependent on our own abilities.
With four weeks to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the crowning again of the Creator as our king, let's remember that the world is in His hands and our work in it is not yet done.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected]