Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron Israel
Written by Rabbi Yosi Peli
Do we really want a king? On the one hand, belief in Mashiach’s revelation is one of the most fundamental expressions of our faith, and what is Mashiach if not a flesh-and-blood king who reinstates King David’s dynasty? On the other hand, there is no doubt that there are many Jews (even the most “religious”) who don’t actually believe in what they believe in… meaning that they cannot honestly say, “Yes! That’s what I want!” The more likely gut reaction might be, “A king? What are you talking about?!”
The concepts of kingdom and kingship arouse a certain sense of alienation in the average individual in our times, and rightly so! From the Bible and until recent generations, a “king” is almost a synonym for tyranny, corruption, bloodshed and all types of evil. The question is whether this is the only option available. We need to realign these concepts from the negative model that has accumulated around them and study them anew from their source, learning what a king is and what kingdom means and what method of government we really want to achieve. If we succeed, we might even be able to re-label the term “kingdom” with a positive connotation.
Indeed, the first time that kingdom appears in the Torah is in a negative context. The Torah portion of Noach teaches us about Nimrod, “He was a bold hunter before God… and the beginning of his kingdom was Babylonia.” The sages assign him the dubious crown of “God’s rebel,” who stood at the head of the builders of the Tower of Babel. Even the kings who we meet at the beginning of the Torah portion of Lech Lecha are apparently also not the most righteous of people, neither is Pharaoh, nor all the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, nor the coalition of four kings who fought them (in the first war of the Torah).
Human society has a natural tendency to organize itself within a political framework that is headed by some sort of government, as Maimonides states, “Man is political by nature” (Guide for the Perplexed). But quite often the one who reaches the head of the political pyramid is the one who is most prepared to unhesitatingly tread over all the others, ruling by power of force and not by justice. That’s why any ruler who wishes to expand and fortify his kingdom, i.e., himself, builds a fortress that towers into the sky (and it is of no consequence to him how many are injured in work accidents) and rebels against God who was once the King of the Universe and told us how to behave—that’s who Nimrod (נמרוד; lit.: “Let’s rebel”) is.
[King] Abraham’s Valley
But what about the hero of Lech Lecha, Abraham? Abraham is apparently far from being called a king. He is a lonely, wandering man of faith, “The entire world was on one side and Abraham was on the other side.” Abraham has no domain of his own, and the land that is promised to his offspring is still in the possession of the Canaanite People. According to the sages, Abraham was against the construction of the Tower of Babel. He confronted Nimrod, smashed the idols and was thrown into the fiery furnace, like a prophet who rebukes the king at the city gates and calls out to smash the kingdom together with its idols.
Yet, surprisingly, the sages do crown Abraham with the crown of kingdom. After his victory over the four kings, the verse states that the King of Sodom came out to him, “To the Valley of Shaveh, which is the King’s Valley,” and Rashi explains, that this is “the valley where all the nations became equal (shaveh) and coronated Abraham upon them as a prince of God and as an officer.” But, what did Abraham actually rule over? He had no kingdom, and was even forced to pay the full price for a burial place for Sarah. Rather, Abraham was a “prince of God,” whose kingdom did not begin with material possessions but with the recognition that God is elevated above all. Abraham was not a tyrannical warrior, but someone who taught faith and radiated love, someone who commanded his household to act with charity and justice.
King of Justice
At Abraham’s side appears another positive royal figure, “Malki Tzedek, king of Shalem” (who according to the sages was Noah’s son, Shem). He also acknowledged God as the ultimate Deity, and as the source of justice, however, it became clear that Abraham was worthier than he of the kingdom of justice, since Abraham represented refined faith in God, and the sages describe how Malki Tzedek transferred the crown to him. In short, Abraham returned the kingdom to God and only as a result of this did he become a king, like someone pointing upwards, saying, “Who is the King of Glory? The God of Hosts.”
Abraham is definitely prepared to don his sword and go out to war, when the need arises. He is also aware of the fact that his offspring will eventually be in complete control of a great and wide kingdom, from the Nile River to the Euphrates. Nonetheless, genuine kingship is not acquired by the tip of the sword, nor by conquering wide spaces; rather, it is granted by the grace of God to those who He deems fit to represent His kingdom on earth.
This means that Abraham’s sovereignty does not merely come as a response to the genuine need to govern society, but in order to teach true knowledge and faith, righteousness and justice, loving-kindness and compassion, and he is the representative of God’s kingdom on earth. Anyone who believes in what they say when they say, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Mashiach,” knows that from Abraham’s descendants we can expect a king who is like him, and so there will be. The peak of Isaiah’s description of the messianic figure in his prophecy is with the words, “And righteousness shall be a belt for his waist, and faith a belt for his loins,” exactly like Abraham who is full of faith and charity and bequeaths them to all of us.
Based upon the teachings of Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh