Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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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.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Parshat Shoftim

Why Not a King Now?

This week's parsha introduces the institution of the Monarchy to Judaism.

'When you come to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, "I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me," you shall appoint a king over you, whom the Lord thy God shall choose' (Devarim 17:14-15).

Depending on how we translate and emphasize key words, it is unclear from this section as to whether Israel is obligated to establish a monarchy or whether they are permitted, should the people feel the need, to appoint a king.

One could understand the word: “וְאָמַרְתָּ” as “you should (i.e. are required to) say: ‘I will set a king over myself’”, it would imply that the mitzvah is an obligation. On the other hand, one could translate it as "you are permitted to say" – making it optional. The same applies to the final clause: "שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ" can be translated as either "you must appoint king" or as: “you are free to appoint a king".

Was the Torah being deliberately ambiguous? Furhermore, if the monarchy was an ideal, why was it not instituted immediately in Sefer Devarim, or at least after the death of Moshe?

To answer these questions, we need to understand the structure of ancient of Israel's society.

Ancient Israel was a tribal society. It was divided into twelve distinct tribes, each with their own flag and substrata of clans. They were counted and camped according to their tribes (Bemidbar Ch.1 & 2) and at the conquest, the land was divided according to tribes (ibid 26:53). There were even circumstances when inter-tribal marriages were forbidden (ibid 36:6-8).

This meant that tribal loyalty was stronger than national loyalty.

Indeed the first time the Tenach calls the country: "Eretz Yisrael", is only after Sha'ul is crowned as Israel's first king (I Shmuel 13:19). Up until that point, there was no united country called Israel, only a confederation of tribes, with little national unity.

The lack of national unity was very disturbing to both King David and Shlomo, who undertook the building of a nation. They were concerned that the united kingdom would not survive if tribal loyalties remained strong.

Therefore, David built his capital (i.e Jerusalem) in a border city that was not associated with any tribe, while Shlomo divided the country up into twelve administrative units, not along tribal grounds (I Melachim 4:7), in attempt to break tribal loyalty and to create a national allegiance.

Therefore, the Torah appreciated that at Moshe's time, Israel was not ready for a Monarchy. However, it anticipated that as the nation matured, the people would see the importance of solidifying their unity and of creating a national structure that would have absolute authority of the whole nation. When that time came, the tribal elders would then be able to select a king. That occurred at the end of Shmuel's leadership.

The Torah understood that different models of leadership would be needed for different times. Therefore, the Torah was deliberately ambiguous and allowed Israel different options for different eras.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King and Sha'ul" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King" appears at

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