Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

My Photo
Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Parshat Shoftim

The King

This week’s parsha sets out the rules of four strands of leadership: The Judge, The King, The Priest and The Prophet.

Israel may be governed by kings when they ask for one: “I will appoint a king over myself, like all the nations me” (Devarim 17:14). Yet, when the elders approached Shmuel, the prophet and said: “Appoint a king over us to judge us like all the nations” (I Shmuel 8:4), using the same formula and language of this week’s parsha, “the request displeased Shmuel” (ibid 5).

Certainly Shumel saw this request as a rejection of himself (ibid 7), nevertheless, it is difficult to understand God’s problem. After all, He himself permits it!!

Through a close examination of both the text in Sefer Devarim and Sefer Shmuel, we can understand the problem with the people’s request.

To begin with there are three things forbidden to an Israelite king:

    • “he may not acquire many horses for himself” (Devarim 17:16)
    • “he shall not take many wives for himself” (ibid 17)
    • “he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself” (ibid)

At the same time, the King has a requirement that he must uphold: “he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll…and he shall read it all the days of his life” (ibid 18-19).

What type of king is bound by laws? How can horses, wealth and wives be forbidden to a king?!! These are things that signify a king’s power and grandeur. Furthermore, why is a king required to do study the law? The king IS the law. He makes the law.

The Torah explains why: “so that his heart not be lifted over his brothers” (ibid 20). Is this a joke? Is this a king?!!

Yes. This is Israel’s leadership. The king is not beyond the letter of the law. The king may not be all-powerful. He must be a constitutional king, a servant of his people and subservient to the law.

This was not the standard type of king of the ancient world. They were ruled by absolute, despotic kings; kings who did what they like, who were challenged by no one and who were believed by their peoples to be gods.

This is the type of king Israel requested in the days of Shmuel. There is one word the people added to the formula that Devarim allows: "לשפטנו" – “to lead us” (I Shmuel 8:5 & 6).

The people, fed up with the weak leadership of the judges, wanted a strong king who could order them around as he wished, just as the nations did. Shmuel warned them: “he will take your sons …and they shall run before his chariots…to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest...he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. He will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive groves, … and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants” (ibid 10-15).

Israel is forbidden this type of king. Indeed, Israel's kings were powerless in the face of prophetical criticism and in circumventing the law. When Navot refused Achav’s request to give him his vineyard: “he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread” (I Melachim 21:4), accepting that he had no power to take it away. Izevel, his Phoenician wife, could not understand his powerlessness. Yet, even she was forced to go through the motions of the courts in order attain his desire.

Even more so, when Ben Hadad is defeated in battle and fears for his life, his servants advise him to surrender because: “the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings… perhaps he will let you live (ibid 20:31).

God permits Israel to have a constitutional king, but they requested an absolute king. Israel’s leaders are to be: "מלכי חסד" – “merciful kings”.


Post a Comment

<< Home