Aligned With the Torah by Jerry Karp


In Parshat Shoftim, we are commanded to appoint a king.  The Torah foresees Bnei Yisrael saying, “We want to appoint a king over ourselves, so that we may be like all the other nations” (Devarim 17:14).  This comes to fruition in the time of Shmuel, when Bnei Yisrael gather together and say to the Navi, “Appoint over us a king to judge us like all the other nations” (Shmuel I 8:5).  Shmuel is furious, and prays to Hashem, who  Hashem responds, “It is not you they despise; rather, it is me they despise” (8:7).  An obvious question arises: if the Torah commands us to appoint a king, why are Hashem and Shmuel seemingly “disappointed” that Bnei Yisrael ask to do so? 

Chazal explain that Bnei Yisrael wished to appoint a king in order to worship idols (like all the other nations).  Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests another more novel explanation.  The Torah intends for a king to serve a similar purpose to the kings of other nations, but not exactly the same.  In most nations, the king is meant to unify the nation.  A king is a single person who is expected to maintain an honorable reputation.  All others look up to him, emulate him, and thus, the nation is unified.  Similarly, a king for Bnei Yisrael would have a high moral character, and he would categorically follow the Torah.  Bnei Yisrael would emulate the deeds of their reputable king, and the nation’s moral status would strongly improve.  Rav Hirsch notes that two terrible incidents, namely, the aftermath of Michayhu’s idol and the incident of the concubine at Givah, occurred at times which are specifically described by the Tanach as having no ruler.  As the last Pasuk in Sefer Shoftim describes, “Each person did as he thought was correct.”  The lack of a ruler not only led to anarchy, but also caused the nation to experience much moral degradation.

On the other hand, when Bnei Yisrael asked Shmuel for a king, they did not have this in mind.  They wanted a king exactly like those of other nations, i.e. a king who would fight in war.  Bnei Yisrael had no intention of improving themselves; they simply wanted to be exactly like the other nations.  It would have been satisfactory for Bnei Yisrael to imitate other nations if their intentions were aligned with the Torah’s viewpoint, but since they were not, a king would not have been constructive – in fact, a king would have been destructive.

I believe that this sheds light on a part of the story of Chanukah.  The Mityavnim, those who wished to assimilate into Greek culture, were not acting properly.  Though learning the Greek culture was not inherently wrong, the Mityavnim also discarded the Torah when they began to learn the Greek culture, and therefore, they assimilated. The Torah does allow us to have some degree of similarity with other nations, but it only if it leads to improved observance of the Torah.

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