The Problem of Monarchy

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

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The Problem of Monarchy

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


His brothers said to him: "Shall you then rule over us? Shall you then be our ruler?" And they hated him even more, because of his dreams and because of his words. (37:8)


Seemingly, the anger that the brothers feel towards Yosef is disproportionate, perhaps altogether unjustified. Yaakov, their father, had worked for seven years for Rachel; he loved her more than he loved Leah and regarded her as his primary wife.  It is therefore only natural that he demonstrated preferential treatment towards her firstborn son, Yosef, regarding him as his successor.


Moreover, if anyone among the brothers should have taken offense, it should have been Reuven, whose firstborn status had been snatched from him, as it were.  But it is specifically he who tries to prevent the sale of Yosef, while the other brothers are enthusiastically planning it.  What was it about Yosef's behavior that aroused such anger among his brothers?


Further on in the parasha, we read the story of Yehuda and Tamar.  The Midrash describes what each character was involved in while this episode was taking place:


The brothers were busy with the sale of Yosef; Yosef was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Reuven was busy with sackcloth and fasting; Yaakov was busy with sackcloth and fasting; Yehuda was busy taking himself a wife – and the Holy One, blessed be He, was busy creating the light of the King Mashiach. (Bereishit Rabba 85, 1)


How was the "King Messiah" created? Not through the normative family framework, but rather through a relationship seemingly based upon prostitution, taking place between a man and his daughter-in-law.  Later on it was necessary for Ruth the Moabite to come and marry one of the descendants of this family, in order that ultimately King David could be born, so that Mashiach can eventually come into existence.  The relationship between Ruth and Boaz, likewise, did not start off as what we could describe as normal relations between husband and wife.  An anonymous midrash (quoted in Yalkut Ha-Makhiri on Tehillim 118:22) teaches that the birth of David himself was likewise the result of an unusual set of circumstances: Yishai meant to engage in sexual relations with his handmaid, but mistakenly lay with his wife. 


Why is King David – and, ultimately, the Mashiach - descended from such a problematic background?


The midrash goes on to assert that King David was supposed to live for only a very short time:


"This is the book of the generations of Adam" (Bereishit 5:1) – God showed him [Adam] all of the generations.  He showed him David; the life allotted to him was three hours.  He said before Him: "Master of the world, is there no repair for this?"

[God] said: "So it is My intention."

[Adam] said: "How many years will I live?"

God said to him: "A thousand years."

[Adam] asked: "Is there such a thing as a gift in the heavens?"

God answered him: "Yes."

[Adam] said: "Let seventy years of my life go towards him." (Yalkut Shimoni, 41)


King David was allotted only three hours to live; he lived for seventy years thanks only to the "gift" of Adam.  Why was he given such a brief lifespan? What does the midrash mean to tell us?


It seems that the midrash is expressing the idea that kingship has no right to exist in Israel.  We cannot naturally accept a situation whereby one Jew rules over another Jew.  In order for kingship to exist in Israel, a special gift from Adam, as it were, is required.  The problematic ancestry from which David was descended expresses a similar idea: Am Yisrael cannot attain kingship in a natural manner.


The Rebbe of Kotzk used to say that in order to establish kingship, Am Yisrael had to import a Moabite woman.  The nation could not create kingship out of its own resources.  Yosef succeeded in functioning as Pharaoh's second-in-command only after he learned this skill in Egypt.  Moshe was called "king," according to some of the commentaries (who apply to him the verse, "There was a king in Yeshurun," Devarim 33:5), after he learned the art in Midian.  Am Yisrael needs to learn from the other nations how a king conducts himself; the nation cannot learn alone.  When Am Yisrael asks for a king, their request is: "Let us place over ourselves a king, like all the nations that are around us" (Devarim 17:14). The concept of a king stands in contradiction to the path and nature of Am Yisrael; it must be borrowed from outside.


Indeed, after people from amongst Am Yisrael request of Shemuel that he appoint them a king, God is angry: "It is not you whom they have despised, but Me, from ruling over them" (I Shemuel 8:7).  Kingship in Israel is not a desirable, natural phenomenon.  An ideal kingship will exist only in the days of Mashiach.  Concerning the verse, "Yaakov sent messengers before him to Esav, his brother" (Bereishit 32:3), Chazal teach:


"Before him" – to him whose time had come to take up kingship from before him.  R. Yehoshua taught: He sent royal garments and cast them before [Esav], saying: Two starlings cannot sleep on the same board (i.e., two people cannot rule at the same time). (Bereishit Rabba 75, 4)


Yaakov, at that time, had no desire for kingship, and so he allowed Esav to precede him in establishing this institution.  Regarding the verse, "Let my lord pass on before his servant… until I shall come to my master at Se'ir" (Bereishit 33:14), the Midrash says,


Rabbi Abahu taught: We have reviewed the entire Tanakh, but nowhere do we find that Yaakov ever went to Esav at Mount Se'ir… When will [Yaakov] come to him? In the future, as it is written: "The saviors shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the Mountain of Esav…" (Ovadia 1:21). (Bereishit Rabba 78,18)


Am Yisrael allows the other nations to take the lead in creating royalty; however, Am Yisrael aspires to attain ideal kingship in the days of the Mashiach. (Rav Kook expands on this idea in his Ma'amar Ha-Milchama, par.  3.)


As noted, it is not only the institution of kingship that is not suited to Am Yisrael.  Even on the personal level, it is difficult to find a person who is suited to be king, who is capable of ruling over his own nation.  It was necessary to enlist help from the other nations in order to create such a person.  (Of course, the problem with monarchy is that one person rules over others; however, the fact that Jews rule themselves and exercise sovereignty is not problematic.  In fact, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty is one of the reasons we celebrate Chanuka.)


Perhaps this is the reason for the great anger that the brothers feel towards Yosef.  "Shall you then rule over us? Shall you then be our ruler?" It is not the identity of the person who will rule over them that so disturbs them.  Rather, it is the very idea that one person is king and rules over others.  It was the concept of kingship that they rejected outright.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Vayeshev 5758 [1998].)