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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Shoftim

Parshat Shoftim

A Punishment That Fits the Non-Crime

3013
Dedicated to the memory of
Asher Ben Haim
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The apparent contradiction between our parasha’s instructions for appointing a king (Devarim 17: 14-20) and Shmuel’s harsh response to Bnei Yisrael’s request to do so (Shmuel I, 8) is one of the most perplexing topics in Tanach. Commentaries have various explanations of the cause of the affront to both Hashem and Shmuel. The major factors raised involve the timing, the motivation, and/or the mandate they planned for the king. We will concentrate on a fundamental difference between monarchy and the system that preceded it and the lessons we can learn from it. But first we need to analyze one of Shmuel’s elusive statements.

Shmuel invoked the heavens, bringing about a powerful summertime thunderstorm (a rare occurrence in Israel), to prove that his reaction to the demand of a king was warranted. The people were so convinced that they begged Shmuel to pray that they should not die. Shmuel responded with the strangest of lines, "Do not fear; you have done all of this evil ..." (Shmuel I, 12:20). What does that mean? If they did evil, then they have a lot to fear.

A central difference between monarchy and other forms of leadership is that monarchy is inherited (Devarim 17:20). Even if a proper king is chosen, his son who succeeds him can bring on devastating consequences and is rarely able to be replaced. We find the righteous Chizkiyahu succeeded by the wicked Menashe, who ruled for 55 years. Thus, monarchy is national Russian roulette. Previously Hashem had handpicked the appropriate leader according to the generation’s needs and merits (see Shmuel I, 12:11). In effect, Bnei Yisrael asked for political normalcy at the expense of Divine Providence.

Shmuel’s enigmatic statement was actually two-pronged. Bnei Yisrael’s request was not a punishable sin, as the Torah made provisions for monarchy, and, therefore, there was no reason to fear imminent death. However, since they had requested it improperly (however you explain it) they would not merit the Divine protections to minimize the potential abuses of monarchy. In that way, they were to blame for all of the future consequences that flowed from a system that through the generations would bring on sin, torment, and destruction. Although "you have done all of this evil," the pasuk continues, "do not stray from Hashem and serve Him with all your hearts." In other words, even if Bnei Yisrael’s improper request put them in a difficult predicament, nationally and religiously, they still had the ability to rectify matters with exceptional dedication to Hashem.

In personal lives, people make many decisions that are not between permitted and forbidden, but are still decisions that set the stage for the likely course of their lives. A choice of spouse, a profession, a neighborhood, and children’s education are examples of choices that may not be between assur or mutar, but whose consequences could be as costly as the biggest sin or, hopefully, as rewarding as the greatest mitzva. May we all choose well.

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