In the Diaspora
(1 Samuel 12:14-22)
June 27, 2009
5 Tammuz 5769
Samuel\’s ambivalence toward the establishment of the monarchy is well known. In Samuel\’s final address to the people, delivered after anointing Saul as king, he finally seems reconciled to the idea. At the end of his address, however, his reservation returns. Samuel adds some bite to his message, which he delivered at beginning of the summer months: \”Now stand by and see the marvelous thing that the Lord will do before your eyes. It is the season of the wheat harvest. I will pray to the Lord and He will send thunder and rain; then you will take thought and realize what a wicked thing you did in the sight of the Lord when you asked for a king.\” (verses 16-17)
Samuel\’s message requires a certain understanding of the context to be understood. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) fills in the necessary details for those who do not live in Eretz Yisrael: \”What is so unusual about rain at harvest time? This is not so special! My father explained: \’In the land of Israel, it does not rain at all during the harvest months.\’\” He adds another detail fundamental to understanding the mindset of someone living in that region of the world: \”Rain (during harvest time) is considered a curse.\” (See Mishnah Taanit 1:7.)
Rashi assumed that Samuel was concerned with the people\’s challenge to his authority: \”just as with my prayers, I am able to change the seasons (from summer to winter), so, too, if war came upon you, there is power in my prayers to withstand the enemy. Therefore there was no need to ask for a king during my lifetime.\” Kimche associated these challenges with a vocal minority who challenged Samuel\’s authority: \”Samuel did all this to proclaim the truth, that in God\’s eyes it was evil to request a king; and even though they believed in Samuel, there were scoundrels who discredited Samuel\’s words. This is why he required a miraculous act so they would not be able to discredit him.\” (abridged and adapted)
Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (13th century Spain) attached symbolic significance to Samuel\’s miracle: \”[The miracle was intended to show] that the selection of a king was a mistake. You chose to elect a king because you thought it the proper and natural thing to do. This is not so. Better to cling to God who can bend nature according to His will.\” (See Drashot HaRan 11, Feldman ed. p. 194)
Rabbi Yitzchak Abrabanel (15th century Portugal, Spain), who served in the government of both countries before their expulsion of the Jews, asserted that the purpose of Samuel\’s message and miracle was to remind the people that monarchy is an institution with the capacity to do both good and bad things. The rain that Samuel brought during the harvest, according to Abrabanel, was symbolic. It was intended to remind them that God disapproved of monarchy because it was bad for the people. We see in this interpretation that Abrabanel, the politician, had a very low tolerance for government, knowing its ills as only an insider can.
In the end, all of these sages urge us to be a bit wary of government and our expectations of what it might do for those in its care and to remember that any government is only a means and not an end in and of itself. Ultimately we are all responsible for building God\’s world.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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