Three in order

About priorities.

Contact Editor
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

In this week’s Torah portion, there are a slew of commandments that are particular to the Land of Israel. Some are clearly stated, while others require a bit of assistance in interpreting from the verses. One such example is found where the Torah tells us of a resulting state of peace that will emerge after their entering the Land of Israel (Devarim 12:10):

“And you shall cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and He will give you rest from all your enemies surrounding you, and you will dwell securely.”

This verse serves as the basis for a Torah charge to wipe out the enemies – specifically the nation of Amalek – after our arrival.

Yet there are in fact three commandments that must be fulfilled when the Jewish people enter the Land of Israel. One is to install a king. One is to annihilate the nation of Amalek, as noted above. One is to build the Temple. In Rambam’s codification of these commandments, he lays out the order as written above. However, it is not entirely clear that this sequence is an obvious one, as noted in the following section from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b):

“It has been taught: R. Jose said: Three commandments were given to Israel when they entered the land; [i] to appoint a king; [ii] to cut off the seed of Amalek; [iii] and to build themselves the chosen house [i.e. the Temple] and I do not know which of them has priority.”

Clearly, any sense of an order being a simple matter is refuted by this statement. R’ Yossi is unsure which of the three should come first. The Torah indicates that all three are necessary, but never instructs how to proceed. 

The Talmud continues:
“But, when it is said: The hand upon the throne of the Lord, the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation, we must infer that they had first to set up a king, for ‘throne’ implies a king, as it is written, Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king.”

We can see here that the monarchal establishment must come first. What then?

“Yet I still do not know which [of the other two] comes first, the building of the chosen Temple or the cutting off of the seed of Amalek.”

There is more doubt about the next two, implying that either one could have been second. The Talmud concludes:

“Hence, when it is written, And when He giveth you rest from all your enemies round about etc., and then [Scripture proceeds], Then it shall come to pass that the place which the Lord your God shall choose it is to be inferred that the extermination of Amalek is first. And so it is written of David, And it came to pass when the king dwelt in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies round about, and the passage continues; that the king said unto Nathan the Prophet: See now, I dwell in a house of cedars etc”

We are able to conclude that destruction of the Amalekite people must proceed the building of the Temple. It is interesting to see the Talmud offer two corroborations for this assumption. The first comes from a sequence of verses found in the Torah. The second takes place after King David, with assistance from God, successfully defends the Jewish people from enemy attacks (as opposed to future offensive campaigns). Once he had completed this task, he turns to Natan the prophet to inquire about proceeding to build the Temple. Why does the Talmud offer two separate proofs? 

A more general question has to do with the idea behind the order. It is easy to understand why each of these commandments is an integral part of the construct of Jewish life in Israel. However, it is also clear from the Talmud that the actual process could have been otherwise. Therefore, it is correct to assume there is a specific idea about why there should be this order versus any other one. What is that idea?

The first commandment is the installment of the Jewish king. While the notion of a monarch may offend those who view democracy as the superior form of government, it is clear from the Torah that a king is the proper form of rule. Yet the idea of a king, in its perfected form, is more than simply a potentate. The Torah states at the end of the portion of Beshalach, concerning the future conquest of Amalek (Shemot 17:16):

“And he said, For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal (kes kah), [that there shall be] a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.”

Ramban, among others, notes that “kes kah” can be combined to form “kiseh”, or throne. He explains that when the “hand will be on the throne of God”, which alludes to the Jewish king, he will need to destroy Amalek. The concept here points to the monarchy being much more than a system of government. Quite often, we see the king and Kohen gadol compared and contrasted. The Kohen gadol can be understood to be the link between the people and God, as evidenced through his worship in the Temple. The king, in some sense, is the representative of God to the people of the world. He reflects the ideology of Judaism and is tasked with sanctifying the name of God. He is always reminded of this role as he carries a Torah scroll at his side all the time. In order to frame the next commandments in the proper light, that of the purely ideological, the obligation to set up the king comes first.

Rabbi Yose, though, is unsure of what should come next. On the one hand, Amalek represents the ideological enemy of the Jewish people. The existence if this enemy is demonstrative of the profaning of the name of God. On the other hand, the building of the Temple represents the positive effect of sanctifying God’s name. Why begin with the destruction of Amalek?

As mentioned above, the Talmud offers two reasons. The first of these comes from the Torah, where our enemies have been vanquished prior to the building of the Temple. The idea of having an existing Temple while the greatest enemy of the Jewish people is still alive would imply potential co-existence. The idea of the Temple is to project an idea of exclusivity, the correct and only true idea of God. That cannot occur if there is a competing, or opposing, ideology.

The Talmud then turns to the story of King David. Why the need for buttressing the above concept? There is another idea critical to the success of the Temple. The building of the Temple means the Jewish people focus their entire security on God. It is in this state that we are ready to worship God appropriately. An environment of threats would mean an inability to worship God in the proper state. King David was under constant threat, and therefore did not have the ability to worship appropriately. Once the enemies of the Jews were vanquished, he was now prepared to engage in the next commandment. 

In retrospect, once the idea of the king is taken out of the political context and put into the ideological, a reframing of what a monarch might be considered, the overall order of the commandments becomes clearer. Rather than see these requirements as the practical building blocks of society, they are to be viewed as the basis for sanctifying God’s name to the world. May we merit the opportunity to fulfill them.