Monarchy in Israel: A commandment or supreme ideal?

This week's Dvar Torah is by Gabi Raiss, former shaliach in Cape Town (2001-2), currently Youth Director of the Chomat Shmuel neighborhood.

Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement

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Torah Mitzion shlichim

Dedicated in memory of Rav Sheer Yashuv HaCohen z"l Rabbi of Haifa, and a longtime supporter of Torah MiTzion. 

On our week's parsha we come across a very interesting law: "When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me'; thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose; one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother". (Deuteronomy 17, 14-15)

Appointing a king is a fascinating issue; the first time Am Israel asked for a king, the reaction was harsh. The book of Judges ends with the words: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21, 25). Right after that begins the book of Samuel, the last Judge before the kings era. When the people of Israel come to Samuel and ask for a king, Samuel response is quite extreme: "And he said unto the children of Israel: 'Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of all the kingdoms that oppressed you. But ye have this day rejected your God, who Himself saveth you out of all your calamities and your distresses; and ye have said unto Him: Nay, but set a king over us. Now therefore present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes, and by your thousands.' (Samuel 10, 18-19)

Why the anger? is the nominating a king a sin? Or is it a Mitzvah?

In my opinion, there is even a greater question: is appointing a king still applicable in our democratic society? Can monarchy be accepted by the people today?

The Rambam on Hilchot Melachim, chapter 1, halakha 1, quotes the Gemara and counts the appointment of a king as a mitzvah from the Torah, one of three mitzvot Am Israel was commanded to do after entering The Land of Israel; nominating a king, war against Amalek and building the Temple. Does that mean that the Torah prefers a monarchy over any other type of governance?

Don Yizhak Abarbanel was a commentator in the middle ages and also a minister in the Spanish government. He suggests a very interesting and unique approach. Firstly, he claims that according to the Torah, appointing a king is not a Mitzvah, but an option: "this is not a Mitzvah at all because G-d didn't command on Am Israel to appoint a king. Rather, after they conquer the land and when the wars are over, as the verse (pasuk) says: 'and dost possess it, and dwell therein' (Deuteronomy 26, 1), they will be ungrateful by asking for a king. Not in order to fight (and win) wars, but in order to be as all nations surrounding them.

G-d foresees this, and commands them to appoint the king chosen by him" (Abarbanel on Deuteronomy 17, 24). Abarbanel proves his claim from what we read in Samuel - if appointing a king was a Mitzvah, Samuel's response should not have been that harsh. On the contrary, he should be happy the people are interested to fulfill a Mitzvah!

Another thing the Abarbanel says is that the idea the Torah suggests it to have an appointed governance in general, either monarchy, republic or democracy - it does not matter. History teaches us that there can be very bad kings and very successful democracies. The important thing is, that any government should be good for the people and not enslave them. It must will take care of the people and their needs.

Still, there's the question of David's kingship as an ideal we should crave for. I think, eventually, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The goal of Am Israel is to make G-d the king of the entire world. The way to do so is, in my opinion, by establishing a just governance system. It can be a king or an elected Prime Minister, but no matter what we should aspire to have "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Exodus 19, 6).

Hence, as today monarchies are uncommon, they are not the way to achieve this ideal; but we must choose in democratic elections a person or a party which will lead and guide us towards our nation's destiny:

"And the LORD shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the LORD be One, and His name one" (Zechariah 14, 9).

Torah MiTzion (see their dynamic website) was established in 1995 with the goal of strengthening Jewish communities around the globe and infusing them with the love for Torah, the Jewish People and for the State of Israel. Over the past eighteen years Torah MiTzion has recruited, trained and dispatched more than one thousand 'shlichim' (emissaries) to Jewish communities in countries spannin five continents and impacted Jewish communities with an inspiring model of commitment to both Judaism and Zionism.