There is a sharp dichotomy between the different leadership models expressed in this week’s Parashah. In the first pasuk of this week’s Parashah, the governmental structure established is one of judges and officers. Soon thereafter, the idea of a king leading Bnei Yisrael is introduced. The manner in which each of the two is presented is very interesting. Whereas the political system directed by judges and officers is introduced in the form of a command - “Shofetim VeShoterim Titein Lecha,” “Judges and officers shall you appoint” (Devarim 16:18) - the government controlled by a king is introduced in a roundabout sort of way: “Ki Tavo El Haaretz Asher Hashem Elokecha Notein Lach ViYerishta VeYashavta Bah VeAmarta Asima Alai Melech KeChol HaGoyim Asher Sevivotai,” “When you come to the land that Hashem, your God, gives you, and you possess it and settle in it, and you will say ‘I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me’” (17:14). Why this disparity? Is one form of government preferred over the other? Also, what is meant by the end of the latter Pasuk? Are Bnei Yisrael really meant to imitate the surrounding nations?
Ramban believes that the answer to both of these questions is negative. Referring to a Gemara (Sanhedrin 20b), Ramban believes that the source for Bnei Yisrael to appoint a king stems from this Pasuk. He asserts that the Shoftim stage is but a stepping stone. When Bnei Yisrael first entered Eretz Yisrael, the first governmental system was of a less grand, more practical leader who would maintain the peace and settle disputes. After such a system had run its course and Bnei Yisrael were more established in Eretz Yisrael, fulfilling the parts of the Pasuk “ViYrishta VeYashavta Bah,” “and possess it and settle in it,” then they should, and would, request from their judges and officers (including the Kohanim) that a king be appointed. The manner in which the Pasuk is phrased, continues Ramban, is to reflect the manner in which Bnei Yisrael beseeched the prophet Shmuel for a king, as the Pasuk states, “Ki Im Melech Yihyeh Aleinu VeHayinu Gam Anachnu KeChol HaGoyim” “There shall be a king over us. And we also will be like all of the nations” (Shemuel I 8:19-20). Building on this theme of the Pasuk being structured according to a future occurrence, the reference to Bnei Yisrael modeling their appointment of a king on the nations of the world is also a reflection of what will happen in the future. Ideally, according to the Ramban, Bnei Yisrael will desire their own king for the sake of having their own king. But the reality is that Bnei Yisrael will want a king because their neighboring nations also have kings and, as evidenced by the Pasuk from Shmuel, they will list this as a reason to have a king. Thus, according to Ramban, having a king is a good thing, even though Bnei Yisrael will want it for the wrong reasons.
Not everyone agrees, though, that a monarchy is the ideal system of government. Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, a propaganda pamphlet disseminated throughout the American colonies in the latter half of the eighteenth century to persuade the colonists to rebel from England, takes the opposite position on kingship. Devoting the first twenty pages of his treatise to lambasting the concept of monarchy, he exposes many follies in the structure of kingship, one of which is that of hereditary succession:
[It] is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho' himself might deserve some decent degree of honors of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.
As no man at first could possess any other public honors than were bestowed upon him, so the givers of those honors could have no power to give away the right of posterity, and though they might say "We choose you for our head," they could not without manifest injustice to their children say "that your children and your children's children shall reign over ours forever." Because such an unwise, unjust, unnatural compact might (perhaps) in the next succession put them under the government of a rogue or a fool.
As all knowledge is derived from Torah, it is not surprising that this idea is recorded by previous commentators. Seforno (Devarim 17:14 in the Torat Chaim edition of the Chumash), a mid-sixteenth-century commentator, describes Hashem’s disgust with the concept of a hereditary transfer of power. The ideal, as evidenced by Hashem’s command to have judges and officers, is to have qualified rulers whose position does not transfer to their children after their deaths.
Bnei Yisrael, though, did not want such a system. They wanted to be like the rest of the nations. What they failed to realize, although Thomas Paine understood, is while Bnei Yisrael might aspire to “be like unto other nations, i.e. the Heathens, their true glory lay in being as much unlike them as possible.”
As such, their request to have a king “KeChol HaGoyim,” “like the nations” was a request to have a system of kings who pass their kingship down through the generations. Long before Bnei Yisrael asked Hashem for a king, He relented and included in the Torah the ability for Bnei Yisrael to appoint a monarch over themselves. Therefore, the roundabout way in which Hashem permits a king is done to highlight His hesitancy in allowing a kingship in which descendants inherit the throne.
Nowadays, we live in society of judges and officers. It is the hardworking, self-made man who accomplishes his goals. The American Constitution goes as far as to prohibit hereditary transfers of titles and stations. It is the American Dream, the dream of hard work followed by success that has driven people to achieve. It is important, though, that in a society in which a man’s actions dictate the accomplishments of his life, his actions and goals be focused properly. To work constantly towards a promotion, money, or fame will leave a person with nothing, because there is never enough. To work towards building a family, learning Torah, or performing Chessed will leave one feeling fulfilled and satisfied with his life’s accomplishments. Im Yirtzeh Hashem, God willing, we all will be able to focus on leading meaningful lives whose accomplishments we can reflect on and feel satisfied with.