There is an old discussion of what kind of government is better: a Democracy or a Monarchy; specifically, in terms of how it affects the Jewish people. On the one hand, a democracy for the most part allows us to observe our religion to its entirety, freely, without too many hindrances. On the other hand, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim Yerushalayim, Rav Moshe Chait zt”l often bemoaned the fact that today there is no real feeling of Yiras Shamayim [Fear of Heaven] present in society, because there are no real monarchs in today’s day and age. People of yesteryear were more attuned to the real feeling of fear in the face of The Omnipresence because they could relate to the feelings towards royalty and sovereignty, due to kings and queens that ruled over them. Today that type of respect and reverence essentially does not exist anywhere in the world; the respect and awe of government or the ruling class is not the same, which, as an extension, reflects in our underwhelming Fear of Heaven.
However, in reality, the Torah’s approach takes a middle of the road approach to this issue. On the one hand there are laws in the Torah for how Jewish kings shall act, limiting the amount of wives and horses they may have, and requiring that they always have a Torah scroll by their side to read from, and so on. Yet, the concept of having a king is also highly discouraged.
This week’s haftorah for the Torah portion of Korach, in Shmuel Alef, deals with the appointment of the first king of Israel, King Shaul, a decision made after much dispute. The Ralbag
in his first three lessons on this episode in Jewish history depicts how not only crowning a king over Israel was highly dissuaded, but was a mistake. He begins by saying that the Jew’s request of a king ultimately was the seeds of the reason why they were exiled from their land. The Ralbag goes on to show how Shmuel did everything within his means to try to stop them from making the wrong decision to insist on a monarch, by explaining to them the danger that could result in being led by a human king, and ultimately trying to depict for them the burden and weight a king would have over them, in order to dissuade them from their decision. Finally, when that didn’t work, Hashem through Shmuel tried making the transition to a monarchy as smooth as possible by choosing someone fit for the job, who was good looking and appropriate, to reinforce the performance of Torah and mitzvos; someone who was a prophet in his own right, and had tremendous humility. Shmuel then warned King Shaul and the Jewish people numerous times to be steadfast to the observance of Torah and mitzvos, in order to walk in the ways of Hashem: “For a king will not help them if they don’t have the hand of Hashem guiding them since The Blessed Hashem is their true king and He set up judges so that they will return to Him in order to save them from their enemies. And their request for a king therefore was only bad and for this reason Shmuel tried to prevent them from turning their backs on Hashem, lest they and their king will be gathered up in their sin.” (Click here
for Hebrew text.)
What is so wrong about having a king? Why is a king any different than any other leader, such as a judge or prophet of the generation, especially if he is being constantly warned to follow the ways of Hashem, and he has constant reminders to keep to the Torah, like having a Torah scroll always by his side?
It would seem that a king is on a different playing field, a whole new plateau, with special rules and legalities of how to be treated. For example, a king’s wife can never marry anyone who is not a king, even after she becomes a widow. There are also other laws that apply specifically to a king, like rebelling against a king, which is a capital punishment. Because a king has his own unique status, even though he is constantly being reminded that he is only a king and is a servant to The King Of All Kings, neverthe less this symbol of status can easily influence his demeanor and his followers demeanor, more than it would by any other type of leader. Since his status is above and beyond that of everyone else, just like Hashem, therefore it was a highly disputed notion to take up a monarchy in the Jewish world, lest it spoil into heresy.
Though a king of Israel did have his checks and balances via the prophet of the generation, Sanhedrin, and the Kohen Gadol, alas the monarchy was not without its trials and tribulations, and ultimately led to much rebuke and punishment. However, now that it is in place, it is destined for a positive purpose ultimately, by culminating in the king moshiach leading all of us in the ultimate performance of Hashem’s will, may he come speedily in our days.