Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)
Parshat Vayechi, which brings the Book of Genesis to a close, contains many conclusions and farewells, primarily concerning Yaakov and his sons. Perhaps the most momentous and elaborate good-bye described in the text is done with all of the children present: “Yaakov called for his sons and said, ‘Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.’” [Gen. 49:1]
Yaakov wanted to reveal the end of history to them. Many opinions maintain that he did not succeed, as at the very last moment, his eyes dimmed and were unable to see the future. Instead, he addresses each son individually, and bestows a blessing on each one, tailored to each child’s skills and character traits. When Yaakov blesses Yehuda, for example, the patriarch proclaims: “The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda, nor the student of the law from between his feet…”
This means that Yehuda, in expression of the appreciation Yaakov felt toward him for the leadership he had demonstrated in protecting Binyamin, should be the leader of the family in generations to come. Therefore, he would take responsibility for the “sceptre” – the rod and the power.
Our rabbis disagreed on whether this was a blessing or a command. In other words, would people from other tribes be permitted to assume leadership of the nation, or was Yaakov truly issuing the order that only descendents of Yehuda could become the kings of Israel?
Regardless of how we interpret the blessing, history has spoken, and there were quite a few attempts made by those who were not of the tribe of Yehuda to seize power.
Perhaps the best known pretender to the throne is Yehuda the Maccabee, the son of Matityahu, a member of the priestly tribe. Having recently celebrated Chanukah, we can now contemplate the legacy of the Hasmoneans. The end of the Maccabean era is nothing short of tragic. Their entire progeny was destroyed, with the Talmud stating that anyone who claims to be a descendent of the Maccabees indicates that they are slaves, since Herod murdered all of them, and his family was a family of slaves.
Our Sages struggled to understand how such a tragedy could occur to the Hasmoneans, of all people. After all, they were righteous, and their contribution to the Jewish people was monumental. This is why Ramban, the great 13th-century Spanish commentator on the Torah, explaining that other tribes were prohibited from trying to seize the throne from the tribe of Yehuda, writes:
And this was the punishment of the Hasmoneans, who ruled during the time of the Second Temple, even though they were truly righteous, and if it hadn’t been for them, Israel would have forgotten the Torah and the commandments. Despite all of this, they were severely punished. They were all destroyed, on account of this sin. …Because they had ruled, and were not of the tribe of Yehuda and the House of David, and had completely removed the sceptre and the student of law [i.e. had established a new dynasty], their punishment was mida keneged mida – measure for measure – and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, raised their servants against them, and those servants destroyed the family.
Ramban’s harsh rebuke leaves no room for other interpretations. Nevertheless, it remains puzzling that he sees this sin as such a serious transgression, one that warrants the utter destruction of the descendents of the Hasmoneans. Even if we assume that Yaakov had genuinely ordered his sons to observe this precept, and that his children were thus required to fulfill their father’s wishes, is this a commandment from the Torah?
Later in Ramban’s commentary, we find another problem in the Hasmoneans’ conduct that sheds a whole new light on the subject. Perhaps, they had also sinned in taking the throne because they were kohanim, and were commanded to maintain their priesthood – they specifically were not to rule, but rather, be devoted exclusively to performing the service in the Temple.
The choice of the tribe of Yehuda was not made solely for the purpose of preserving the status of the tribe of Yehuda. It also played a key role in keeping the roles of kingship and priesthood separate. Those who were given the responsibility of performing the Temple service could not rule the nation, politically, as well.
A kohen is supposed to be a person who connects the entire people with their Father in Heaven. He is supposed to be connected and attentive to each individual, regardless of that person’s political affiliation. This is why a kohen may not be a king. The kohen is earmarked for Temple service and for connecting the entire nation to the service of God.
This precept might guide us with how we manage our lives in our time. There is an enormous gap between the world of the kohen, who was focused on serving Hashem and fulfilling His values in our world, and direct involvement in the more material nature of political dialogue. If the kohanim intervene and take sides, making the service of Hashem just one more political special interest, they do a tremendous disservice to the world of values they are supposed to represent. The case of the Hasmoneans is just one of the many such stories. Perhaps Yaakov did succeed in revealing what would happen to us at the end of days, after all.