Parshat Vayigash: What Makes a Leader?

Rabbi Netanel Aryeh Leib and Rabbanit Avital Kaszowitz are Straus-Amiel shlichim serving as the Chief Rabbinical couple of Kenya and the Jewish communities of East Africa

Kasowitch1 300x225 1In the previous portions we came across leader figures: Reuven, Yehuda and Yosef.  All three display leadership qualities and have characteristics of firstborns.  However, when Yaakov blesses his sons in the portion of Vayechi, he bestows kingship upon Yehuda, at a time when he is residing in the castle of Yosef!  Surely this is bewildering.

The first question is, why not give Reuven, the firstborn, the kingship, or at least some other form of leadership?  Yaakov describes Reuven as doing things on impulse – pachaz kamayim, “unstable as water” – one driven by emotion, unmindful of the possible outcomes of his actions.  For instance, the episode with Bilha, which Yaakov describes as “though went up to your father’s bed.”  Similarly, when Reuven tries to convince his father to let him take Binyamin to Egypt, he says to him – “…my two sons you shall slay…”.  Why would Yaakov want to bury two grandsons as payback for Binyamin not coming home?!  These are not the actions of a true leader.

In light of the above, it is obvious why Reuven was not chosen.  We are now left with Yehuda and Yosef.  So why is Yehuda preferable to Yosef?

Yosef is known as Yosef HaTzaddik, Yosef the Righteous.  Yosef is the child most beloved to Yaakov; Yaakov teaches him at every opportunity, and prepares him to be his successor.  When Yosef is sold to Egypt and lives with Potiphar, and later withstands the desire to sin with Potiphar’s wife, we learn of his strength of character and his inherent righteousness.  We see before us a man who stands firm against all challenges and enticements and does not let these overcome him.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to emulate such a magnanimous personality.

But who is Yehuda?  Yehuda was not born a leader, nor was he brought up to be one.  However, he definitely grew into one.

Immediately following the sale of Yosef in the portion of Vayeshev, the Torah tells us that Yehuda leaves the family – “he descends from his brethren” – marries and fathers three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah.  After God smites Er and Onan, Yehuda promises his daughter-in-law Tamar that she would marry his son Shelah once he reaches marriageable age, but in the meanwhile she should return to her father’s house.  The Torah goes on to tell us that Yehuda goes down to shear his sheep, where he also happens to meet a “prostitute” who is actually his daughter-in-law.  These events teach us the point of despair Yehuda has reached.  So much so, that he is willing to give up everything: disconnect from the twelve tribes and have relations with a prostitute – actions which denote lack of continuity.

Tamar, however, knows exactly what she is doing when she deceives Yehuda – she is entitled to yibbum – levirate marriage – and yet Yehuda has refused to give her his son Shelah.  After Yehuda has intercourse with her, he gives her a pledge, until such time that he pays her.  But when he returns to pay her, she has already disappeared with the pledge he had given her.

Several months later, it becomes known that Tamar is with child.  Yehuda proclaims that she has committed adultery and instructs that she be burned.  Tamar, who does not wish to humiliate Yehuda publicly, says to him: “Discern, I pray thee, whose are these; the signet, and the cords, and the staff?”  Yehuda has the option of keeping silent, and sending her off to die without humiliating himself.  However, Yehuda makes no excuses, and his response is short and clear:  “She is more righteous than I.”

The story demonstrates what true leadership is all about – being able to say “I have erred.”  As a reward for this action, Yehuda merits to have King David as his direct offspring.  In the episode with Batsheva, King David sees Batsheva, lusts after her, takes her and then gets her husband killed in order to cover up the deed.  When the prophet Nathan comes to the king and tells him the parable of the poor man’s lamb and then says right out – “Thou art the man,” King David does not try to whitewash his actions.  Rather, he gives a straightforward reply of few words:  “I have sinned to God.”  King Shaul, on the other hand, who seemingly committed a far lesser sin, loses his kingdom instantly because unlike King David, he does not know how to take responsibility.

What do the Torah and Yaakov Avinu ultimately wish to teach us about leadership?

Firstly, we need both types of leadership, Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David, in order to reach the Final Redemption.  Secondly, a leader does not have to be as perfect as Yosef, the most righteous of his generation.  He is allowed to err – this may even be preferable – so long he learns from his mistakes.  What is crucial is for a leader to be able to say “I was wrong”, without giving excuses, and simply saying “I have erred.”

Imagine a world in which our leaders admit having erred, make no excuses and blame no other but themselves.  What an amazing world that would be!

Shabbat Shalom.

The Jewish community of Nairobi is a very diverse one, comprised of Israelis, Americans, Europeans and Kenyans.  The Jewish community of Tanzania is comprised of Yemenite Anusim, who had fled Yemen some two hundred years ago.  The community members of Uganda lived as Jews for a period of one-hundred years up until a decade ago, at which time there were converted in accordance with halakha.  There are many other diverse Jewish communities in Africa; each is unique in its own way. 

Shabbat Shalom!

View previous articles in the “Our Shlichim Share” series


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