“When you shall come into the Land… and say, ‘I will set a king over myself…’” (Deut. 17:14) We would expect the Torah to simply command either, “Thou shalt appoint a king” or “Thou shalt not appoint a king.” Why the ambivalent language?
The Bible and our rabbis share a suspicion of government and its politicians. We are a people who are to follow God’s law. God is our king. Why would we need to appoint one? A midrash colorfully depicts Israel as a wild donkey thriving in the desert. That donkey has no need of fear of humans. Why would it deliberately seek a master who could end up trying to exploit it or abuse it?
Experience teaches us that God doesn’t “rule” for very long before God’s self appointed mediators begin to usurp control. “God is king” devolves very quickly to “So, who’s really in charge?” Better to set up a secular authority and bind the occupant of that office with appropriate checks and balances. The key word is “secular.” We may not be able to maintain the ideal of “God is king,” but we must be vigilant and insist that “The king is not God.”
Rabbi Mitch Levine