Who Is Our King?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha, Shoftim, deals with many of the communal institutions that are essential to the proper functioning of a society. Thus, it includes laws pertaining to the judicial system as well as the executive authority. At first glance, these matters seem to be commonplace and unrelated to religion. We expect the Torah to be concerned with our spiritual wellbeing and focused exclusively on the mitzvot that will refine our souls and bring us closer to Hashem.

Sorry to disappoint you, but Judaism is not a mystical religion that encourages people to withdraw from this world so they can indulge their subjective religious fantasies. In fact, the Torah is very concerned with the so-called profane. It wants us to be involved in the development and perfection of the world, which was created by Hashem “for His glory.” The mundane universe is holy because it “declares the glory of Hashem,” who commanded us to use the divine soul He implanted in us to gain understanding and mastery over the forces of nature.

The formation of civilization is vital to the human mission of peaceful scientific and social progress. Only in a just and well-ordered society can people direct their energies to intellectual pursuits and work together in harmony to put to the best uses the fruits of techological progress. 

The aim of Judaism is not limited, however, to perfecting the social order in which we live. It goes beyond this and communicates to man that material perfection is not the ultimate goal. Rather, it is the necessary means to enable man to devote himself to his chief purpose, the service of G-d and perfection of the soul.

Our parsha discusses the system of government that Hashem favors. Surprisingly, G-d mandates the appointment of a king. However, the wording of this commandment is somewhat ambivalent. The verse states, “When you will say, ‘Let me appoint a king over myself like the surrounding nations,’ then appoint a king over yourself.”

A Talmudic debate arose as to whether the mitzvah to appoint a king is obligatory or optional. According to the latter view, Hashem was not commanding, but only giving permission: If the people wanted to establish a king like the nations around them, they could do so. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, rules that appointing a king is an absolute commandment, not an option. 

However, it behooves us to seek to understand the deeper reasoning behind the Talmudic debate on this issue. What follows is my personal interpretation. In parshat Pinchas, Hashem informed Moshe that, due to his sin at the “waters of contention,” he would not enter the Land with the people. Moshe was concerned for the future of the nation and implored G-d to appoint a ruler “who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the assembly of Hashem shall not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”

There are 2 factors in the appointment of the leader. The first is a pragmatic one: there has to be a national authority that all must obey to avoid the chaos of a situation in which each person does as he pleases. If the need for a leader is only based on practical concerns, there is no reason why it must be a king; any government system that the people choose and which can govern society would be acceptable. If the people desire a king, permission is granted.

However, the rabbi who holds that a king is mandatory has a different view. A leader is not only needed to establish national order. The Jewish people are unique and must be a nation constituted in a manner that reflects the glory of the Creator. The kingship affords a certain dignity to the nation. For example, the British monarchy has no effective power, but occupies a very important role in the hearts of the people. They would adamantly resist any attempt to retire the positions of king and queen, as these roles lend a sense of dignity and importance to the United Kingdom.

The same is true of the Jews. The nation must be established according to the highest level of national importance and prestige. It must be ruled by a king who is endowed with great power and honor. He is referred to as Moshiach Hashem, the anointed of G-d. Hashem is the true king of the Jewish people, but He endows His earthly representative with the majesty appropriate to his role as leader of G-d’s nation.

In Judaism, the boundary between the holy and the profane becomes blurred. Even the most mundane activity takes on elements of holiness when it is used to fulfill the highest aims of human existence. When politics serves as a means of implementing G-d’s will on earth, it becomes a righteous endeavor. 

Let us pray that Hashem will infuse Israel’s leaders with the wisdom and inspiration worthy of a people who are to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Shabbat shalom.