Parashat Shoftim contains Hashem’s command, “Som Tasim Alecha Melech Asher Yivchar Hashem Elokecha Bo,” “You shall surely set over yourself a king whom Hashem your God shall choose” (Devarim 17: 15). In this Pasuk, Hashem tells Bnei Yisrael that when they enter the Eretz Yisrael, they should appoint a king, whom He will choose, for themselves.
In the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 4:5), Rabi Yehudah asks why there is a difference in attitude towards kingship between the Torah and Shmuel Alef, where Shmuel gets angry at Bnei Yisrael for asking to have a king appointed. Why didn’t Hashem approve when Bnei Yisrael asked for a king during the time of Shmuel? Furthermore, why did Hashem punish them for asking for a king?
Three answers are mentioned in the Tosefta. Rabi Yehudah himself answers that Bnei Yisrael’s request was too early, and they should have waited before asking for a king. Rabi Nehorai says that the Pesukim in Parashat Shoftim were written only because Hashem knew that in the future, people would ask for a king; these Pesukim anticipate that request. According to this view, the Mitzvah to appoint a king is only a BeDiEved allowance. Rabi Eliezer ben Yosi, on the other hand, says that in Shmuel Alef, the Zekeinim wanted a king to judge them, and that was perfectly justified. However, the common people wanted a king only to emulate the other nations. This motivation was wrong and was the reason for Hashem’s punishment.
According to Rabi Yehudah, there was nothing wrong with the request itself – it was the timing that was premature. If they would have asked for a king after Shmuel’s death, when they wouldn’t have had a leader or a Navi to turn to, it would have been okay, perhaps even a Mitzvah, since it is written in the Torah. Since, however, Bnei Yisrael asked for a king when they still had a Navi acting as a leader, demonstrating that they were not satisfied with his leadership, they were punished. According to Rabi Nehorai, on the other hand, the request for a king is inherently wrong. It is only allowed because Hashem knew it was a natural desire of Bnei Yisrael to have a king like all other nations; however, it would have been better had Bnei Yisrael never made the request. According to Rabi Eliezer ben Yosi, the problem was not in the request itself but in how Bnei Yisrael asked for a king. The people didn’t ask for a king because of the command from Hashem, only because they wanted to be like the other nations.
An alternative answer to the question of the less-than-enthusiastic attitude towards Jewish kingship may lie in the rest of the Pesukim and in the Navi as well. While the wish for a king is understandable, there are many restrictions and laws placed upon the king to make sure he leads properly but maintains his Yirat Shamayim. As we see from the flouting of these laws by Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of people, these standards were hard to maintain, even for the best-intentioned person. Perhaps the Torah is less than enthusiastic about kingship because, indeed, it is a great challenge.