Shmuel I (8:4-22) relays the story of the Jewish elders coming to the prophet, Shmuel, and requesting a king be appointed over the Jewish nation. The request seems benign enough, but, interestingly, Shmuel becomes completely enraged upon receiving it. This seems strange considering that the Torah seems to directly commands the Jewish people to appoint a king over themselves. Devarim (17:14-20) states that “Bnei Yisrael will enter Israel and appoint a king over themselves…” and then continues to describe the laws regarding said king. This verse implies that Bnei Yisrael being governed by a king is a given, not even a reshus (option), or even necessarily a mitzvah.
So why was Shmuel so angry at Bnei Yisrael when they were just requesting Divine assistance in fulfilling a Divine verse?
One can argue that Shmuel was being something of a protective father. In those days nepotism quite literally ruled. A son succeeded his father as leader amongst the nations. (This didn’t work so well for Bnei Yisrael, as evidenced by Sefer Shoftim, but that is very obviously because of Divine intervention.) Perhaps one can therefore suggest that Shmuel was disappointed that the people didn't want his own sons to be their next leader. This, however, is extremely unlikely because the verse states clearly that “his sons did not follow in his ways” (8:3). It seems that this is something that everyone knew, including Shmuel. Thus, Shmuel himself certainly understood any reservations about his own children ruling. Our original question of why Shmuel was so upset with the request for a king is now even stronger.
To further this question even more, one has to wonder why HaShem told Shmuel that Bnei Yisrael had rejected Him by making their request (8:7). Doesn’t the verse in Devarim, as stated above, command Bnei Yisrael to have a king and start a monarchy? Ramban (Devarim 17:14) ascertains that it is a mitzvah to ask for a king, while Rambam counts appointing a king as one of the 613 mitzvos in his count in Sefer HaMitzvos (Mitzvas Asseh #173). So why is requesting a king a rejection of God? Isn't it rather the desire of Bnei Yisrael to fulfill a mitzvah? What is the source of HaShem’s anger? Additionally, what is the Torah’s perspective on monarchy altogether? What is the Torah’s ideal form of leadership?
Though many of the commentators disagree on some of the semantics of this story, they all agree that Shmuel did have a right and reason to be angry with Bnei Yisrael. According to Ha’amek Davar (Devarim 17:14:2), Bnei Yisrael were scarred from the times of the shoftim. They were afraid of going to war without a leadership they felt they could depend on. The Jewish people felt that even though the shofet of the time was told what to do directly by God, they wanted a more permanent supervisor to oversee their war efforts. HaShem was upset with them for feeling that His guidance through a shofet was insufficient. Therefore, when HaShem told Shmuel that Bnei Yisrael were rejecting Him, it was because they were rejecting HaShem in the war effort. Metzudat David (8:7) takes this a step further and explains that HaShem was telling Shmuel that Bnei Yisrael had rejected Him and no longer had a desire to keep the Torah’s laws. If either of these explanations was indeed the nation’s intention, then of course Shmuel had a reason to be angry.
Indeed, Malbim explains that Shmuel’s anger was certainly valid, but for a much less egregious error on the part of Bnei Yisrael. Malbim explains that it wasn't the request itself, so much as how they formulated said request. The problem was not in the beginning of what they said when they asked for a king, but what they said at the end — that they wanted “to be like all of the other nations.” The elders’ intention was to make themselves more like the other nations of the world and that was the problem. Malbim throws in one more point as well explaining that the undercurrent of this request was the desire to throw off the yoke of Torah and Malchus Shamayim, thus possibly agreeing with Metzudat David in understating what HaShem meant when He stated that Bnei Yisrael had rejected Him.
It seems that according to the above explanations, Shmuel wasn’t necessarily upset at the mere request for a king. But what is the real story behind the verse in Devarim? How do we explain the seeming commandment in Devarim to be ruled by a king?
Ramban explains that the verse is actually a hint to the story in the book of Shmuel, and it wasn't befitting for Bnei Yisrael to want to copy the other nations. Ohr HaChaim explains that HaShem never truly wanted to command Bnei Yisrael to appoint a king, but did so only so that if it would happen that Bnei Yisrael would want a king to lead them, they would receive a mitzvah for doing so. Ibn Ezra (17:15) actually says something along these lines as well, and explains that “som tasim” is a reshus (permission) to have a king, not a command. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (20b) explains that the elders did everything correctly — from going to ask Shmuel for a king, to pointing out that his sons were not befitting for the job as leader — and the reason that Shmuel and HaShem got angry was because the people wanted a king for the wrong reasons, namely “to be like the other nations.”
A Light Unto The Nations
In light of these explanations, how can we conclude what the Torah’s perspective on government is? Well, it seems that in order to be an “Ohr L’Goyim,” a “Light Unto the Nations,” as the prophet Yishayahu describes in his sefer (42:6), we need to interact with the other nations — especially when Bnei Yisrael are in control of Eretz Yisrael and have a Beis HaMikdash. The other nations are even encouraged to come visit the Beis HaMikdash. Therefore, it seems that some form of central leadership is definitely necessary to teach the nations how to lead moral and civilized lives. Based on Sefer Shoftim wherein it is said that each person did what was “right in his eyes” (17:6) with a clear negative connotation, we know that Bnei Yisrael aren't capable of an anarchist society.
Is there a possibility that monarchy is ideal? It went well for a few kings, but it only lasted for so long. Maybe, like in the times of Shmuel, just to have a navi would be ideal, but then the people complained that they wanted a king. I would like to suggest that the ideal form of government in the view of the Torah is to have a king/navi; either one person or a tag-team. This way the nations of the world respect the Jewish people and have someone with whom they are comfortable interacting. This is to be done not in order to be like the other nations of the world, but to cater to their needs. Bnei Yisrael would then have direct intervention from HaShem telling them what to do and how to act.
God willing, we will be able to experience what the ideal form of government is under the leadership of Mashiach, speedily in our days.