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Among the commandments that appear in this week’s Torah portion (Shoftim) is one that immediately poses a question from elsewhere in the Bible. The command (Deut. 17:15) is, “Appoint and put a King over youŔ In practice, there were kings throughout Jewish history (Abraham, Moshe and Joshua, for example, were kings). However, the Jews did not appoint their own king until hundreds of years after they entered and settled the land of Israel. During the period of the Judges (roughly 450 years), as the Tabernacle moved from one place to another on the journey to its final resting place in Jerusalem, there were judges who served the dual purpose of educating (via prophecy) and ruling the Jews. However, in the days of Shmuel (Samuel), the Jews finally demanded and requested a king of their own, and Shmuel acquiesced, appointing King Saul to the task. However, Shmuel was deeply unhappy over this request, and our question is, why? If the Torah (in our parsha) issued a command to the Jews to appoint a king, why was Shmuel the prophet upset with the Jews for doing so?

Moreover, not only the written Torah, but also the oral Torah enjoins the Jews to appoint a king. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 20B) says, “The Jews are commanded to do three mitzvoth when they enter the land of Israel; to appoint a kingŔ So, if the Jews’ request for a king was inappropriate, then why did G-d tell Shmuel the prophet to go ahead and appoint Shaul?

Chassidic literature (Derech Mitzvotecha of the Tzemach Tzedek) gives two rationales for appointing a king. The first is the simple reason mentioned in the Misnhah (Avot, 3:2), “If it weren’t for fear of the king, every man would swallow his neighbor aliveŔ The King has to establish order in the kingdom, so that his subjects will act properly toward one another. Even in the best situation, when people understand the necessity of acting according to societal norms, nevertheless sometimes “the eye sees, and the heart desiresŔ and a person can be overcome by his evil inclination. And therefore, there must be fear of the king, in order to ensure that his subjects proceed “in a straight path.”

And even when the people of the kingdom understand and act consistently in accordance with the laws of the kingdom, nevertheless there will be times when there are issues that are beyond their grasp. There are issues that only the ruling class, and specifically the king, can understand. And therefore, he will issue edicts and decrees in accordance with what he knows to be the overall situation, even when the general population is unaware of the rationale behind them. And that brings us to the second reason for the Jews to appoint a king. The true king of the Jews is G-d Himself, and the king who is appointed by the Jews is meant to function as an intermediary. This is necessary for two reasons:

1) Jews are naturally butel, or “nullified” to the One above. They are intrinsically aware of and feel that whatever comes to them is from Above. However, on those occasions that the feeling is unconscious or lacking, they need a “reminder.” When the Jews see the nullification of their king to the One above, it reminds them as well that they need to submit themselves to the will and wisdom of G-d.

2) In the best situation, wherein the Jews are consciously nullified to G-d, and need no reminder, then the Jewish king fulfills a higher purpose. He becomes a teacher and spiritual mentor for the Jews. That is, there are levels that are beyond the grasp of the subjects of the kingdom, since there are limitations to their spiritual intellect and feelings. However, those levels are not beyond their king, whose entire purpose is to be an intermediary to enable the Jews to connect with G-d. And when the king serves his purpose as a teacher and mentor, he is the conduit to conduct higher spiritual levels to the Jews below and enable them to grow spiritually and intellectually. Thus, the Jewish king lifts the Jews to higher levels of love and fear of G-d.

Consequently, we may answer the question above regarding the
prophet Shmuel and why he opposed the appointment of a king, even though it is a commandment of the Torah. Shmuel, who was not only a prophet and judge but also a teacher and educator, would have preferred to see the Jews reach high levels of nullification and fear of G-d by themselves, without needing a king. And then, the king would have been necessary only to raise the Jews to the highest levels of spirituality – yirah ila’ah, or “awe” of G-d. However, the Jews requested a king not for high spiritual purposes, but merely in order to “be like the other nations,” who had kings. They wanted a king for the same reason as all the non-Jewish nations, to ensure proper conduct among themselves, so that they wouldn’t “swallow each other alive.” This meant that they lacked the basic level of fear of G-d that they should have naturally attained on their own. The simple “entry-level” fear of G-d is sufficient to ensure that we will not “eat each other alive.” But, since the Jews lacked even that basic fear of G-d, they asked Shmuel the prophet to coronate a king for them. That is why G-d responded to Shmuel by saying that “It is Me that they loatheŔ – by requesting a king, the Jews rejected not Shmuel the prophet, but G-d Himself.

But, G-d instructed Shmuel to go ahead and appoint Shaul as the king of the Jews. For, even though the Jews should have arisen to a high enough level to have conscious fear of G-d and to conduct themselves in a civilized fashion, nevertheless, since that was not the situation, it was important to appoint a king immediately. In order to bring the Jews up to the appropriate level of nullification to G-d, it was necessary to appoint a king right away. Thus, the king could begin by establishing order, by making sure that his subjects are acting in accordance with civilized laws, and then attempt to lead the Jews to the higher levels of fear and awe of G-d. And then, hopefully the king could ultimately act in his highest role, as a teacher and spiritual educator, lifting the Jews to higher spiritual levels.

Several thousand years later, still in the throes of spiritual darkness that prevails before the arrival of Meshiach, we can still learn something from the appointment of a king. There is no king now, but the sages said (in Talmud Gittin end of Ch.5), “Who are the kings? – the sages and rabbis.” Just as there was a national commandment to appoint a king, so there is now a personal obligation from the rabbis to “make for yourself a rav.” There are some people who think that this obligation only applies when they have high, spiritual questions to ask – they think that is the time to go to a rabbi. But, for their relatively minor physical matters, they can decide alone, without consulting a rabbi.

But, the Mishna does not differentiate. It says simply, Asei lecha rav, “make for yourself a rav,” whether for high spiritual matters or for simple everyday items. When it comes to our simple physical needs, we prefer to believe in ourselves. Therefore, we tend to eschew the advice of any rav, believing that we can function on our own. Often, we may have been functioning on a low level for some time, not making any progress, waiting for some “new spiritual wind” from Above to blow in and change things, so that we can make the necessary adjustments under our own control.

The answer is that even now, we must appoint a spiritual king over ourselves (individually) – and now. Even though the main purpose of a king is to function on higher spiritual levels, when there is a situation of, “It is Me whom they rejectŔ it is necessary to appoint a king right away. When there is no king out there to guide us, and we are not making progress on our own, it is necessary to “appoint” someone and make him or her a rav over us. And then by following their advice, we will succeed.

There are those who claim that they cannot “find” a rav. They say that they are unable to locate a person who can give them proper advice and counseling. However, this is merely a seduction of the yetzer harah – the “evil inclination.” There cannot be a situation that one Jew is unable to find another Jew with more yirat shamayim (“fear of G-d”) than him, who can therefore be his rav, or mentor. It means that he has simply neglected to search for that person and “make” him his Rav. But, if he puts in the effort and dedication, there is no doubt that he can find someone who he can make into his “Rav.”

And then, the task of the Rav is to instill basic Jewish functioning in the student, until he is able to progress in the Jewish path of Torah and mitzvoth. Following that, the student will absorb the higher level of fear, leading to “awe” of G-d. And this is the proper preparation for the arrival of meshiach, who will be the ultimate teacher and king, both of them together.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz’l, vol. 24, Pp. 104-106 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem