Toras Avigdor: The Jewish King

In Torah language, the king is not someone who seized power or won an election and rules, but the one most capable of ruling.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller ,

HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l
HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l
INN:Toras Avigdor

The Conditional Mitzvah

In Parshas Shoftim we read about the mitzvah of שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ – You should place a king over you (Shoftim 17:15). Now, it’s interesting to note that this mitzvah seems to be different from all other mitzvos. Because it doesn’t just say, “You should place a king over you;” - it comes with an introduction.

The parshas hamelech starts like this: וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ– If you, the Am Yisroel, will say, “Let us put a king over ourselves,” שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים – then you should appoint one for yourself. It’s a condition for the mitzvah – first you have to ask for it; but if you don't, there’s no mitzvah.

And the truth is that many years passed before the people asked. For hundreds of years Am Yisroel had no king – בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל (Shoftim 17:6). All around them, all the nations and even the smallest cities and towns had kings. Melech Sodom, Melech Amora, Melech Yericho – a long list of kings (Yehoshua 12: 9-24). Everybody had kings; but the Am Yisroel? No.

Don’t Defund The Police

Now, there are some know-it-all historians who say the Jewish people were a backward nation; some loose desert tribes who gathered in a confederation of sorts, but weren’t advanced enough to develop the concept of a monarchy until much later. They read the posuk (verse), “And these are the kings who reigned in Edom before a king ever reigned over the Bnei Yisroel” (Bereishis 36:31), and they claim it means that Edom was more enlightened than the Jewish nation.

What is the Torah really saying? It’s telling us that in Edom they needed a king! Otherwise, they would cut each other's throats. They needed a king, an authoritarian and strongman, to enforce law and order. Are you just going to let the Edomites do whatever they want?! What do you think they’re going to do? You think they’re going to build yeshivos?! They’ll learn Mesillas Yesharim?! I don’t have to tell you what’s going to happen. We see it today.

Monarchy Rules

I’m going to shock you now but benevolent monarchy is the best form of government. Of course, sometimes you have a wicked person who becomes king – you can have a wicked President too – but no nation can exist without a strong authority.

And that’s what a king is. You don’t know that because we don’t have it anymore, but a king means there’s a real boss, someone who is guiding the affairs of the nation. And he’s the ultimate authority; he’s the final word on anything and everything.

It’s not like today when the President has to take into account this constituency or that constituency. What are the Hispanics going to say? What are the blacks or the Italians going to think? And then there’s a Congress and a Supreme Court; there’s the military too, the generals who have the President’s ear. The President is not the final word – he’s being pulled in all directions. He has very little authority because every Tom, Dick and Harry has an opinion; and that’s why America is going meshuggah today.

I'm not going to argue with you about it because your minds have already accepted the ideals of democracy. But I'm telling you; I studied the subject and there’s no doubt that democracy as it is now is a failure and it's leading to disaster. Of course, we appreciate the freedom from persecution and the rights to worship — we are grateful to America — but there’s no question that too much freedom is a failure for society.

We Always Had a King

In the good old days when the king was everything and he was the source of all authority, it kept everyone in check. The king guided the affairs of the nation. All three branches of government belonged to him.

But among the Jews, Bnei Yisroel, that wasn’t needed! We didn't appoint a king of flesh and blood because Hakodosh Boruch Hu was all of that and much more. He was the authority and all royalty belonged to Him!

You’ll remember, at the very beginning of our history, when we left Egypt, Mitzrayim, our forefathers were saved at the Red Sea, Yam Suf, and they all shouted הַשֵּׁם יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד! It wasn’t just a pious expression like we say today. Hakodosh Boruch Hu was the real melech; He was the government and His Torah was the constitution. He was One who sat on the throne guiding the national fortune of the Am Yisroel as well as the life of every individual.

A Ridiculous Idea

And therefore Am Yisroel never even thought about appointing a king over them. A king of flesh and blood wearing a golden crown? Sitting on a physical throne in a palace? It was ridiculous! And he would be surrounded by servants and soldiers; all the panoply of royalty! Such a thing was absurd to them.

That’s why among Am Yisroel nobody ever entertained ambitions of becoming a king, a melech. And if someone was caught contemplating such an idea, he was a usurper! He was taking away the throne of the sole Melech Yisroel! No one had the audacity to think of making a coup and seizing power.

King of All and Nothing

Now, it’s hard for us to imagine such an objection. “We’re not taking away power from Hashem,” we say. “Chas v’shalom! We just want a king!” That’s because after all these centuries of being accustomed to sublimating the idea of Hashem Melech and using it only in allegorical form, it's hard for us to understand that there was once a time when our forefathers actually visualized, they actually felt, that Hakodosh Boruch Hu was sitting on a throne and managing the affairs of Am Yisroel.

Today the pious Jew will tell you, “Certainly Hashem is melech! What’s the question!” But actually it’s a very big question for him. Because he’s thinking maybe about tremendous galaxies; about heavenly bodies without end. Melo kol ha'aretz kevodo – His glory fills all of space. It's a wrench of the intellect to pull Hakodosh Boruch Hu out of space and seat Him on a throne in our midst and make him Melech in the most tangible sense of the word.

Royalty and Nobility

Now, I use the word melech deliberately because the English word “king” doesn’t do any justice at all to the lashon kodesh word melech. We don’t appreciate the word melech anymore because the gentiles have corrupted the concept altogether. One didn’t become their king because he knew how to manage the affairs of the state better than his fellows. Who usually became king after all? It was somebody who was a tough brute who gained the throne by assassinating someone before him.

We think, the royal family in England! Ahh, the royal family; such glory, such honor. I’ll tell you how it started way back. Way back there was a brigand in the highlands of Scotland who was more vicious than his fellow cousins, and so he gained control of his clan. And after committing many deeds of mayhem, he finally succeeded in building himself a castle, and making himself a member of the Scottish nobility.

After a while he was so rich that his family intermarried with the reigning family in England. The drunkards of Scotland were meshadeich with the drunkards of England; invei hagefen b’invei hagefen. And then, when a suitable situation arose, this Scottish brigand hired someone to plunge a dagger into his mechutan, and he himself took over. That’s how he became king. But conducting the affairs of the country well? Could be; sometimes he was able to do it. But that’s not how he achieved the title “King.”

King and Counselor

When we say Hashem Melech, it means something else altogether. Melech doesn’t mean “conqueror” or “the one who possesses power.” It's related to the Aramaic world milka which means counsel, advice. Anyone who learned a little knows that in the language of the mishnah the word nimlach is used for one who changed his mind. Nimlach means “he took counsel with himself,” and melech denotes, “the one who knows how to take counsel with himself and manage the affairs of a people.” In Torah language, the melech is not the one who seized power and rules, but the one who is most capable of ruling.

And that’s how Am Yisroel said “Hashem Melech” in the ancient days. When they spoke about Hashem as king, it meant something different from what it means to us today. For the ordinary Jew, it wasn’t a mere form of speech; it was a living reality, a remarkable awareness of Hashem sitting on a glorious throne, managing the affairs of the world and the affairs of our people in particular.

A Generous Offer

Now, I understand that this may seem to you an exaggerated ideal but I'll show you that our forefathers really lived with it. Because you know there was once a Gideon who was a champion of the Jewish people. Gideon did a great service for the Jewish people; he fought on their behalf and he won many victories and finally he rescued them from their enemies.

After Gideon’s victory over Midian, the people were so grateful that they approached him with an offer. They said to him, “You should be our king; and your son after you” (Shoftim 8:22). Now, you have to know what that means that the Jewish people said that. It was the most extreme expression of gratitude. But how did Gideon respond? He said “Hashem yimshol bachem – You have a king already. I can’t be your king.”

The Humble Jewish President

Now to us it would seem like a rejoinder; a wise crack, or exaggerated humility. Suppose the Jews in America decided to choose a man to be, let's say, the President of the Jewish Nation in America. They came to a certain person, a capable fellow, and they want to appoint him president of all the yeshivos, of all the orthodox kehillos, all the shuls. So they come to him with a crown and ask him to please accept the honor.

So he stands up and he says, “Hashem is your king!” Ooh wah! Everybody would applaud that noble sentiment! Of course, they know it means nothing. He's a fine man, a humble man, but the words are only a poetic expression. At least he says it! That’s also something!

Gideon Wasn’t A Poet

But when Gideon said, “I won't be a melech over you,” he meant it. He wasn’t just saying nice words so that the newspaper could give him a write up. He meant it from the bottom of his heart. “You don't need a king,” he said. “There's a better one already in office.”

So what happened? Am Yisroel listened to Gideon and went back to their tents chastened; reminded of the great principle that Hashem yimloch l’olam va’ed. And that’s how it remained for many more years.