Thursday, August 16, 2007

The King and I

Elul is here and Rosh Hashanah is just one month away. It’s time to start getting ready.

How does a Jew prepare for the Days of Awe? What are we supposed to do? Repent? Pray? Give Tzedakah? These are all good ideas, but there is something else, something far more basic and far more difficult. Reb Yerucham Levovitz (1874-1936) put it quite succinctly. On Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, we will all have to stand before the King. Elul is the time to practice doing just that.

Well, how do people comport themselves before a king? It’s been quite some time since anyone has stood trembling in a throne room, wondering if they will be knighted or tossed in a dungeon. This is a good thing, of course, but it has a down side when Elul comes around. We simply don’t know how to relate to a king.

This problem is particularly acute for us Americans. Many of us still harbor negativity to the whole idea of monarchy – after all, our last experience with it was His Majesty King George III. Moreover, recent history has seen our leaders held up to ridicule; Quayle, Clinton and Bush are prominent examples, but it has been happening across the board. We have become accustomed to mocking authority. We have absolutely no sense of what it is like to live under a king.

The American system has been wonderful for us Jews and we are eternally grateful. However, this week’s parsha does not promote democracy. It orders us to appoint a king.

When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you, so that you have occupied it and settled it, you will [eventually] say, “I will appoint a king over myself…” Appoint over yourself the king whom G-d your Lord chooses…

Devarim 17:14-20

On the face of it, it’s a surprising mitzvah. Who needs a king? The Jews already have a legal system, a court system, and prophets. Moreover, the Jews have God. God is King. Why appoint a mortal monarch? The truth is, we don’t really need a king. But in order for humans to relate to anything, it must exist in some form in our world. Without the benefit of experience, abstract ideas and concepts remain just that – abstract and nebulous. Living under a benevolent human king helps people relate to the Divine King. This is why the Torah promotes monarchy and not democracy.

Despite the fact that our parsha declares it a mitzvah, when the Jews do eventually ask for a king, it is considered a sacrilege! It happens several centuries later when the prophet Samuel is leading the nation. The elders of Israel come forward and make the following request of the prophet:

“You have aged and your sons have not followed your path. Appoint a king for us…”
G-d said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the nation, to all that they have requested of you. It is not you that they are rejecting. It is I that they have rejected from being King over them.”

I Samuel 8:5-7

“It is I that they have rejected from being King over them.” That’s a pretty severe accusation! Why is God putting such a negative spin on this innocent request? Doesn’t our parsha clearly state that it is a mitzvah to appoint a king? Why is this request now viewed as a rejection of the monarchy of G-d?!

The answer, says the Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Efraim Luntschitz, 1550-1619), is a small, but highly significant, difference in wording. A request for a king over us is a mitzvah, as per our parsha. But the Jews who came before Samuel did not ask for that. It was not a king over them that they asked for, but a king for them. This is something else altogether.

They did not want a Royal Highness. They were looking for something a lot more democratic. They wanted a “king” who would be under the constant scrutiny of the press, a “king” who answers to the people, a “king” not over and above the people but “for” the people. In short, they asked for a leader whose job description would be to serve the people, not a monarch who is served by the people. (It seems their request was granted to disastrous effect. The two professional failures of King Saul were caused by attempts to cultivate popularity with the people. Cf. I Samuel 13:9-13; 15:24.)

A king who serves the people might make for a legitimate political system, but it is not the kind of king described in our parsha. This explains why the Jews who came to Samuel did not fulfill a mitzvah. However, a question remains. Why did their request constitute a rejection of God? Certainly, the elders of Israel would never engage in an outright rejection of God and this charge should not be taken literally. But what does it mean?

Apparently, our assumption was correct. The political universe in which people live has a profound effect on their relationship with G-d. If you grow up and live in world devoid of respected authority figures, it becomes well nigh impossible to relate to a God who is King. Setting up a monarch who is a puppet of the people ultimately leads to a population that expects God to submit Himself to their will rather than vice versa. God understood that such a political system would undermine His relationship with the Jews and that is why He considered it a personal attack.

For Americans, “monarchy” is a dirty word. But we cannot escape the fact that Elul and Rosh Hashanah are all about accepting a monarch. We have a lot of work to do.


  1. The need for a king was pointed out in the Book of Judges. For example, section#19 starts with

    "And it was in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a Levite man dwelling by the edge of the mountain of Ephriam, who took for himself a concubine from Bethlehem to Judah."

    and the last line, after relating a sickening series of tragedies to the Jewish people, with tremendous loss of life caused by the Jewish people themselves, is:

    "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his eyes."

    The need for a king was clearly stated.

    Al Milgram

  2. The thrust of your argument is fascinating: that we relate to the kingly G-d based on our individual concept of what a king should be. What about the father-aspect of G-d (Avinu Malkeinu)? Do you think we relate to the fatherly G-d as we relate to our fathers? If our fathers were gentle, I think that we would conceptualize a patient and warm G-d. And if they were stern, we would conceptualize a harsher, less patient G-d. Make sense?

  3. Anonymous-

    Yes, that does make sense. And it gives new meaning to the commandments to honor and revere parents.