Uneasy lies the head

The two nations which I love and am a citizen of, are in seemingly endless leadership struggles. The country in which I was born votes in less than three months. While the country I have adopted has voted thrice in the last year and a half, and there’s speculation about a new round of elections in the fall. Phew, democracy is messy! This week’s Torah reading makes choosing a leader sound so simple: You shall surely place upon yourselves a king whom the Lord your God has chosen (Devarim 17:15). But as we’ll soon see even that process got pretty messy. 

The system for implementing the appointment of a king is initiated: when you come to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, then you will say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me (verse 14).” Those conditions were finally met during the days of the prophet Shmuel, centuries after Moshe gave these instructions. 

Here’s what the people said to Shmuel: Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now, set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations (Shmuel I 8:5). And here’s what the venerable prophet responded: Whoa, just one doggone minute there! Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but he wasn’t pleased, and had to be forced by God to appoint Shaul. 

That didn’t go well for reasons we can’t explore here. So, alternate Plan B was David. God sends Shmuel, with oil in hand, to anoint David, Shmuel gives a curious response: How shall I go? For, if Saul hears, he will kill me (16:2). How good was Shaul’s security force? It would seem that Shmuel could sneak to David without arousing much concern. However, after the fact, on his return from crowning a competitor king, by then word might get out and the danger should be the greatest. 

There are two very similar answers to explain Shmuel’s concern, and both were given in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov. The first approach is found in the Degel Machane Ephraim by Reb Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov (1748-1800), grandson of the founder of Chassidut. He explains that Shmuel was only concerned about ‘going to’ David, because the king of Israel is also the nation’s heart, and, like the Shadow, knows what lurks within the hearts of men. However, once David is anointed king that power would transfer to the new king, keeping Shmuel safe from detection on his return trip. 

The other version of this idea is found in the Teshuot Chen by Rav Gedalia Mordechai Mi’Lintch (d. 1809), who also knew the Ba’al Shem Tov. He insists that the Ba’al Shem Tov claimed that the fear of Shmuel was based upon the fact that the king is the head of Israel. This explains why the king wears a crown; the symbol of power must be placed upon the head. The king knows what the nation is thinking. 

It’s possible, of course, that at different times the Ba’al Shem Tov expressed the mystical bond between the king and the people in different ways. I like that we have both ideas. It’s wonderful to believe that the chosen King of Israel is connected to each one of us both intellectually and emotionally. 

It would be amazing to have candidates who fulfill our entire wish list of attributes and positions. I’m still waiting to experience that set of circumstances. 

I believe that the Ba’al Shem Tov is informing us that we shouldn’t look for leaders who agree with us. We must find leaders who try to understand us and care about us. The ruler must try to be in touch with the hearts and minds of the people. 

Ultimately, we must endeavor to choose leaders who try the hardest to care about the largest number of people in the realm, and are concerned most for those who can take of themselves the least. As Yeshayahu taught us about the bad leader: Your leaders are rogues and cronies of thieves; each one loves bribes and runs after payments; the orphan they do not judge, and the cause of the widow does not touch them (1:23). 

The Ba’al Shem Tov enlightens us about good leaders. They have a good head to support that crown, and a good heart beats within their breast. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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