Background

The portion of Korach is about Jewish leadership. Korach challenged Moses and Aaron regarding the positions they held as leaders of the people. The haftarah reflects this overall theme, this time in the events surrounding the appointment of the very first Jewish king.

Similar to Korach, the Jews in the time of the prophet Samuel had misconstrued the purpose and function of Jewish leadership. This stemmed from a deeper and more basic misconception: a loss of focus as to the nature of Jewish peoplehood altogether.

The scene of the haftarah opens after Saul, the first king of Israel, led a decisive victory against the nation of Ammon. Whereas in the beginning there were those who doubted Saul’s capabilities, his leadership had now stood up to the test. For this reason the prophet Samuel suggested that the people now gather in Gilgal and renew their commitment to the recently appointed king.

An immense celebration ensued, as the entire people pledged their allegiance to the crown. Sacrifices of thanks were brought to G‑d, and the people rejoiced immensely. As the festivities came to a close, the aging prophet stood up and addressed the nation. He had a lot to tell them.

The Gilgal Address

Samuel’s address was directed at one point. He needed to impress upon the nation that the success or failure of the Jewish people depended very little on political organization and central government. In a few sentences, he recapped the history of the Israelites up to the point of their entry into the Land of Israel. Right from the start, G‑d had been directly involved in their becoming a nation, and given them the leadership of Moses and Aaron. These two giants of spirit did a fine job of liberating and leading the people—all without any credentials in political life. G‑d was with them, and miracles accompanied them every step of the way.

Now, over four centuries had passed since the Jews had entered the promised land. Time and again the people were witness to the fact that if G‑d willed them victory, it actually made little difference who the leader was that orchestrated it. Sometimes they were great men and women, and sometime they were at best more simple, if not deficient. The common theme of every military success they had ever had was that at the time they had collectively done teshuvah and mended their wicked ways. They knew and understood the nature of the Jew, and did not revert to seeking a more sophisticated battle plan when trouble was brewing.

It seemed the Jews had forgotten this. When an attack from Ammon was impending, the collective reaction was a demand to unite the land under a king who would lead them in war. There was not a word regarding teshuvah, prayer, or any spiritual resolve. This, said Samuel, was a defining moment.

There is no problem in having a king or a united state, continues Samuel. It is all progress, providing that you do not forget what will make this project a success or a disaster. The rules won’t change: follow G‑d, and it will be good—for the people and for the king. Do the opposite, and it will be bad news.

The Credentials to Rebuke

The people remembered well how hesitant Samuel had been in appointing a king in the first place. But at the direction of G‑d, he had nevertheless followed through with their wishes. Until that point, Samuel himself had assumed the mantle of leadership: he had traveled up and down the country, sorted out quarrels in judgment, taught Torah, and conveyed the word of G‑d whenever necessary.

So, before rebuking them, Samuel was adamant to prove to the people that he had no agenda whatsoever in passing on his role to a king. Now as always, he had served his people faithfully, putting their needs entirely before his.

Even though he was a public servant, Samuel had never taken public funds to go about his business. Even the donkey he used for traveling was his own. The sentiments he expressed were almost identical to Moses, who during the Korach saga said to G‑d: “I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs, and I have not wronged a single one of them.”1 Now too, after lifelong community service, there was no side benefit that Samuel could say he had gained from this. His own children had been among those who wanted a king, so he had not even secured a public position for his posterity.

Samuel challenged anyone who thought he had dealt incorrectly to come forward. No one did. The people announced this in unison, bearing witness in front of G‑d that the record of their righteous prophet was impeccable, and a voice from heaven confirmed this to be true.

Now that the above was cleared, Samuel felt he could admonish the people he had so faithfully served.

Be Careful What You Ask For

After making his point, Samuel felt he had to prove himself. He was sure many were doubtful about his words. Was G‑d truly unhappy with the request for a king? Why, He had granted it without delay! Samuel had to demonstrate the truth of the age-old Jewish dictum: “A person is led on the path he desires to take.”2 G‑d will often grant a collective or private request even though it may not be ideal for the requester. By granting the request, He allows the person to learn the lesson of his own conduct.

It was a hot summer day in Gilgal. It was the wheat harvest season, and although rain is usually a welcome phenomenon in a Mediterranean climate, it is unexpected and unwelcome at that time of year. Samuel said: “Is it not the wheat harvest today? [Nevertheless] I shall call to the L‑rd, and He will send thunder and rain.” Sure enough, Samuel prayed, and a fierce storm and a heavy rain broke loose.

The people understood. G‑d had indeed granted their request, but this was only to demonstrate their spiritual decay. They had gone far astray and hadn’t even realized it. They begged Samuel to pray for them, for they were fearful that they deserved death.

The haftarah concludes with Samuel reassuring them. You have nothing to fear, he says, as long as you take the lesson to heart and resolve to remain faithful to G‑d. Either way, there is no other power to rely on; anything other than G‑d is a vain hope “that cannot profit or deliver.” Either way, says Samuel, G‑d will never forsake you “for the sake of His holy name, because G‑d decided to make you His people.”