- Parshat Shoftim
Sovereign kingdom and Kingdom of Heaven
Parsha and its Implementation - Shoftim - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - 5779
In our Parasha, the Torah deals with the King's appointment:
…וְאָמַרְתָּ֗ אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר סְבִיבֹתָֽי׃ שׂ֣וֹם תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר ה' אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּ֑וֹ…
"…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 Hashem your G-d”. (Devarim 17:14-15)
What are its implications for today's reality in the State of Israel, for a parliamentary democratic system of government rather than a monarchy? Is it especially meaningful to read this Parasha in the month of Elul?
In our case, the king's appointment is mentioned as the people’s initiative: "you decide, I will set a king over me", this raises the question of whether positioning a king is "permission" if the people want it, or "a duty", "a commandment to have a king". This was divided by the Gemara:
" וכן היה רבי יהודה אומר שלש מצות נצטוו ישראל בכניסתן לארץ להעמיד להם מלך ולהכרית זרעו של עמלק ולבנות להם בית הבחירה”
“The baraita continues: And so would Rabbi Yehuda say: Three mitzvot were commanded to the Jewish people upon their entrance into Eretz Yisrael, which apply only in Eretz Yisrael: They were commanded to establish a king for themselves (see Devarim 17:14–15), and to cut off the seed of Amalek in war (see Deuteronomy 25:17–19), and to build the Chosen House, i.e., the Temple, in Jerusalem (see Devarim 12:10–12)
“רבי נהוראי אומר לא נאמרה פרשה זו אלא כנגד תרעומתן שנאמר ׳ואמרת אשימה עלי מלך׳ וגו׳”
“The baraita continues: Rabbi Nehorai says: This biblical passage about appointing a king was stated only in response to the Jewish people’s complaint, as it is stated: “When you come unto the land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall possess it, and shall dwell therein, and shall say: I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me” (Devarim 17:14). The verse indicates that appointing a king is not a mitzva and that when Samuel spoke to them, he intended to frighten them so that they might regret their complaint and retract their request for a king”. (Sanhedrin 20b:8).
Also, the Torah commentators are divided into this: Some interpret it as "permited" (Rab Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and others) and others as a "mitzvah" (Ramban, Sforno, Bechor Shor and the Tor). Maimonides ruled that this is a mitzvah (Maimonides Melachim 1a).
The King's appointment order in our Parasha includes the creation of a sovereign government system with powers to impose law and public order enforcement, as well as command the public to listen and obey to the king's laws:
שום תשים עליך מלך שתהא אימתו עליך
“…as it is stated: “You shall set a king over you” (Devarim 17:15), meaning, it is necessary that his fear should be upon you” (Sanhedrin 20b:6).
Rabbeinu Bahya emphasizes that this is an extraordinary commandment: "Even though the Torah’s way is not to fear people, we are warned to fear the king and the public and wise disciples, from the king it is written (Devarim 17): as it is stated: “You shall set a king over you" And the Rabbanim explained, that his fear should be upon you.
מֶ֗לֶךְ בְּ֭מִשְׁפָּט יַעֲמִ֣יד אָ֑רֶץ
By justice a king sustains the land. (Proverbs 29:4)
And our Rabbis added in Pirkei Avot 3:2-
הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בְּלָעוֹ.
“Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive”. (Rabbeinu Bahya -Kad HaKemach -Fear of G-d).
The existence and stability of the state and society depend on the power of the government and thus its importance and uniqueness. It is therefore imperative to maintain the dignity and status of the government in the eyes of the people, including all the governmental bodies contained therein to prevent anarchy. On the other hand, there must be mechanisms to prevent the government from exploiting the power given to it, and instead of devoting itself to serving the people, it will serve itself and seek its own privileges.
“The king's commandments in the Torah also have a spiritual meaning: "And the fear of the king is in all awe of G-d, as He ordered so. And find that the King's awe has been compared to the awe for Hashem: Shlomo said:
(יְרָֽא־אֶת־ה' בְּנִ֣י וָמֶ֑לֶךְ (משלי כד:כא:
“Fear Hashem, my son, and the king” (Proverbs 24:21)
Just as you will have to fear the Holy Name blessed Be He, without seeing Him, and with it you will refrain from the offense, you will also have to fear the king who is leading the land even if you don’t see him and thereby save yourself from a death charge” (Rabbeinu Bahya ibid)
The month of Elul is a preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is the Almighty’s Coronation Day in the world. Hasidism noted that in the month of Elul 'the King is in the field' -המלך בשדה** (Likutei Torah Parashat Re’eh), His Kingdom is evident and closer in this world. Man can gain special accessibility and proximity to G-d directly, without intermediaries. On the other hand, accessibility and proximity affect the special awe these days have.
Our teacher, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, used to mention that the laws of kingship and honor are not just for the king, but the government in general, and it also touches the status of the democratic government in the State of Israel today: "A man will always want to pay homage to the kingdom. And a kingdom means a political leadership of any kind in Israel" (from the Torah Goelet 2, Pinchas). "The fence of the kingdom is: the order of the affairs of the nation inside and out. All arrangements of the leadership of all of Israel, the leadership of the Israeli nation, this is an examination of kingship, which is determined by the Divine arrangement of the leadership of the nation" (Ibid Chapter 3 - Building of the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Israel).
Democracy is a complex governmental structure. Which is based on public choice and majority rule, and the balances that exist between the various systems of government. On the one hand, transparency and public scrutiny of the governing systems are needed to balance the power given to it so not to abuse it. And on the other hand, it has to beware of disproportionate opposition criticism that may undermine and weaken the 'fear of royalty' and the status of government in the eyes of the people. Which may bring about anarchy.
These principles are important throughout the year, but during an election campaign, they are of paramount importance.
המלך בשדה** The King in the Field is a common phrase taken from a parable taught by the old Rebbe (Admor HaZaken) that says that in the month of Elul, G-d is compared to a King who exits the royal palace, and goes into the fields, welcomes every Jew everywhere and hears their requests, as a king who goes out to his people when they are in the field.