The Story of Agrippa
It is written, “You shall surely set over yourself a king whom Hashem your G-d shall choose. From among your brothers shall you set a king over yourself; you shall not place over yourself a foreigner, who is not your brother” (Devarim 17:15).
The Mishnah in Sotah 41a recounts what happened to Agrippa, a king of Israel who descended from Herod, a slave from the house of the Hasmoneans. Agrippa was called to the Torah and read a passage from this week’s parsha. He received it and read it while standing, for which the Sages praised him. When he reached the words, “You shall not place over yourself a foreigner,” tears ran from his eyes, but they said to him: “Do not fear, Agrippa. You are our brother, you are our brother!”
As he was reading from the Torah, Agrippa wept upon reaching the expression, “you shall not place over yourself a foreigner,” for he knew that he descended from Herod. The Sages then told him that he was their brother. The Gemara explains: “At that moment, the enemies of Israel [a euphemism for Israel] made themselves liable to destruction, for they flattered Agrippa” (Sotah 41b).
Rashi comments: “Tears ran from his eyes – for the verse rendered him unfit as king. You are our brother – for his mother was Jewish.” Commenting on Sotah 41b, Rashi says: “They flattered Agrippa – for although his mother was Jewish, he was not fitting to be king because he was a slave, and it was shameful.”
Let’s think about this: What is the first concept taught by the verse in question, and what is the final concept that it teaches? When King Agrippa wept, it was because he understood that the expression, “From among your brothers shall you set a king over yourself,” was referring to a Jewish king of Jewish descent. Now, “From among your brothers” is not the same as a king who is Jewish only on his mother’s side. In that case, why did the Sages tell him: “You are our brother”? Did they not know that only his mother was Jewish? Furthermore, we need to understand why their flattery made them liable to destruction. What wrong was there in wanting to console him?
We need to explain why Agrippa wept only when he reached the second part of the verse (“you shall not place over yourself a foreigner”). He should have burst into tears as soon as he reached the first part: “From among your brothers shall you set a king over yourself.” The Sages interpret this expression to mean “the best of your brothers,” and yet Agrippa descended from a slave, meaning that he was not among the best of his brothers.
It seems that Agrippa initially thought that “from among your brothers” excluded a foreigner. Yet when he reached the end of the verse – which explicitly mentions the foreigner – he realized that the beginning of the verse was excluding him.
If we are correct about this, then our initial question is now even more pertinent: What purpose did the Sages’ response serve? Agrippa’s ancestors were not among the best of their brothers, meaning that he was not fit to be king. Therefore what were the Sages telling him?
It seems that by saying, “You are our brother,” the Sages meant to tell him that because the end of the verse says “who is not your brother,” it was not referring to him, since “you are our brother.” The fact that the verse says, “from among your brothers” teaches something else. That is why they twice said, “You are our brother,” for the term “brother” is mentioned twice in the same verse.
As a result, when the Sages told Agrippa: “You are our brother,” they annulled the mitzvah of “from among your brothers” and twisted an entire verse from the Torah. They did all this so they could flatter Agrippa, which is why they were held to account.
To modify a verse – to give explanations on the Torah that are contrary to the Halachah – renders a person liable to destruction.
We should also point out how the accusation made against the Sages was different, for the Gemara teaches that only individuals from among the tribe of Judah could reign as king. As we know, the Hasmoneans were accused of this, as the Ramban says in commenting on Sefer Bereshith. On the verse, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Bereshith 49:10), the Ramban writes: “[T]he scepter shall not depart from Judah to any of his brothers because the king of Israel, who will rule over them, must be from the tribe of Judah, and none of his brothers will rule over him. …[E]very lawgiver in Israel who carries the king’s signet must be from Judah. It is he who will rule and command in all Israel, and he will have the seal of royalty until the coming of his son….
“In my opinion, the kings from other tribes, who ruled over Israel after David, went against the wish of their father Jacob by diverting the inheritance of Judah to another tribe. Now they relied on the word of Achiya the Shilonite, the prophet who anointed Jeroboam, who said: ‘For this I will afflict the seed of David, but not forever’ [I Kings 11:39]. Yet when [the northern kingdom of] Israel continued to crown kings one after another from the rest of the tribes, and they did not revert to the kingdom of Judah, they transgressed the testament of their ancestor, and they were accordingly punished….
“This is also the reason for the punishment of the Hasmoneans, who reigned during the Second Temple. They were saints of the Most High, without whom the learning of Torah and the observance of mitzvot would have been forgotten in Israel. Nevertheless, they suffered great punishment: The four sons of the old Hasmonean Matityahu, saintly men who ruled one after another, fell by the sword of their enemies despite all their prowess and success. The punishment ultimately reached the point at which our Sages of blessed memory said: ‘He who says, “I come from the house of the Hasmoneans,” is a slave’ [Bava Batra 3b], and they were all destroyed on account of this sin.”
Hence this may be why the Sages of the generation were admonished: They should have reprimanded Agrippa directly for having dared to reign as king, since he was not from the tribe of Judah. Despite the fact that on any other day, the Sages would not have been obligated to reprimand Agrippa due to the fear of authority, once he read what was written in the Torah and tears began running from his eyes – since he realized that he was not worthy to reign as king – they should have taken advantage of this opportunity and reprimanded him. Instead, not only did they not reprimand him in any way, they went so far as to flatter him, allowing this opportunity to pass! Hence they made themselves liable to destruction, for a person who has an opportunity to spiritually progress and strengthen himself, yet fails to use it, has much to be admonished for. The Sages, who could have returned the kingship of Israel to the tribe of Judah, yet failed to use this marvelous opportunity which presented itself to them, were held liable and deserving of destruction.