A matter of convenience?
by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
In this week's Torah portion G-d instructs the people that after entering the holy land they are to appoint a Jewish king for themselves. No less than 400 years after entering the land, the Jewish people approached the prophet Samuel and requested that they be given a king like all the surrounding nations. You'd think that Samuel would commend them for finally getting their act together by asking for a king. But instead Samuel rebukes them and angrily equates their simple request for a king with rejection of G-d Himself. This begs the question - if appointing a king is a commandment from G-d Himself, why the irate reaction upon their desire to fulfil the will of G-d.
The famous Biblical commentator of the 16th century - Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz- referred to as "the Keli Yakar" - offers a novel solution by simple analysis of the words used in both contexts:
When G-d instructs the people to appoint a king He says "when you come to the land that your G-d gives you and possess it and settle it and you will say 'I will set a king over myself'...you shall set over yourself a king whom your G-d shall choose". 400 years later when the people approached Samuel with a desire to appoint a king they said "give us a king to judge us like all the nations".
The difference is obvious. The purpose of the Jewish king was to guide and direct the people how to better serve G-d. "Setting a king over myself" means that we are willing to truly accept the king as our guide, our leader and we are willing to be subservient to his will. Even when it may appear that we know better, we will "set the king over myself" , believing that he has our best interests in mind and that he will lead us to what is ultimately for our good. This kind of king is not there for convenience, in fact he can be very inconvenient at times - often pushing us to do things that we feel are unnecessary. But we are nonetheless willing to follow because we know that He knows better. This is the kind of approach to a king that G-d wanted us to have.
Asking the prophet to "give us a king" was the exact opposite. Here the request was for a king, but for one who would function as a figurehead only. Samuel sensed that the people wanted a king for convenience purposes only - "like all the nations". He saw that they were uninterested in having someone who would show them the way, in having a guide, a leader. On the contrary, they wanted a king who would be "given" to them, a king who would appear as a king but in reality be nothing more than a puppet, "given over" and subservient to those who had appointed him.
Today we have no monarch but these two kinds of attitudes to Judaism in general still exist. We can approach the Torah and its ways as our way of life, our vital guide in life -one that may be inconvenient at times but one that we are willing to accept because we know that it's for our ultimate good. We are willing to "set it over ourselves". Conversely, we can approach Judaism with an attitude of "give me" - being willing to adopt it only when convenient for us and when it will suite our agenda; but being equally quick to discard it when it's not to our liking and when it doesn't fit into our schedule. As Rosh Hashana approaches - the time when we accept G-d as our king - let's recommit to accept His kingship over us, and may it bring with it all the ultimate good.