Rav Uri Sherki

Vayechi - The leader who is worthy of leading the nation

1 Adar 5766 (1 March 2006)

Translation by the Jewish Agency of an original article in Hebrew

The Book of Genesis concludes with a sedrah of blessings-instructions by Jacob, the father of the nation, to his sons, the founders of the Tribes of Israel. The question that confronted the commentators of the Torah was: what is the meaning of Jacob’s blessings? What was the message which our father Jacob wished to impart at this important moment in the commencement of the history of our nation?

Rabbi Yitzhak Arbabanel, who served as a minister in kingdom of Spain and Portugal and who, as a result, was a highly skilled politician, wrote that the intention of our father Jacob was to demonstrate who among his sons was worthy of receiving the reins of political power from him. The issue was all the more pertinent in light of the conflict waged by Joseph and his brothers in the last years of Jacob’s life, and which represented a struggle for power: “And his brothers said to him. Shalt thou indeed reign over us? Or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?” (Genesis 37, 8). Let us examine the content of Jacob’s blessings: Reuven, as the eldest, should have been anointed king. But he was rejected because he was “unstable as water” (Genesis 49, 4), and his hastiness could lead him to engage in hasty governance with goals that were short-term and at the expense of the nation’s moral foundation. At the moment when Jacob needed to have the safety of Benjamin, his youngest son, guaranteed, Reuven said to him: “Slay my two sons if I bring him not to thee.” In order to quickly impart reassurance (to Jacob), the hasty leader (Reuven) was ready to sacrifice vital interests (his sons)!

In contrast, Simon and Levy knew how to defend the honor of the nation, as they proved in Shechem, with regard to Dinah. They were “religious fanatics.” Although this type of leadership is necessary in times of great tension in the history of a nation, as it was during the episode of the golden calf, when Moshe cried out: “Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him” (Exodus 32, 26), and during the story of Pinhas, Yehudit or Mattityahu the Hashmonai, but this type of leadership must not be permanent.

Shimon and Levy are particularly dangerous when they conspire together: “O my soul, come not thou into their secret [when they confer privately]” (Genesis 49, 6), says Jacob our father. The solution was to disperse them among their brothers: “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49, 7), then they will blessed: “They shall teach Jacob their judgments and Israel their thy law” (Deuteronomy 33, 10).

Zevulun was a man of the universe, a man with wide-ranging visions, who worked in international trading: “And he shall be for an haven of ships” (Genesis 49, 13). But this very gift engenders a danger, in that such a person risks being more committed to the local community than to the nation as a whole. “Regional development” is more important to him than the good of the nation.

Issachar, the “strong ass, ” the learned scholar in the group, was rejected from power in spite of his erudition. Indeed, his love for Torah study was liable to deprive him of a healthy sense of politics and cause him to prefer loss of independence: “And he saw that the rest was good and the land that it was pleasant and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute’ (Genesis 49, 15). For such a person, it is preferable for the affairs of state to be run by foreign powers so he can acquire the spiritual tranquility needed for theoretical study.

Dan was ready to fight in order to free the nation from the yoke of foreign powers, and he was particularly gifted in guerilla warfare: “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels” (Genesis 49, 17) – his type of warfare was suited to the time when the nation fought for its independence, but it is not efficient when it is time to abandon underground warfare.

In contrast to Dan, Gad knew how to organize and run an army: “A troop shall overcome him” but his all-seeing leadership was only through a soldier’s eyes; so that, even though he knew how to be victorious, he was liable at the same time to retreat for strategic reasons: “but he shall overcome at the last” (Genesis 49, 19). This type of man can be chief of staff, but not prime minister.

Similarly Asher, “out of Asher his bread shall be fat” (Genesis 49, 20), could be minister of finance, and Naphtali, who “giveth goodly words” (Genesis 49, 21), could be minister of culture, but neither one is worthy of being given the reins of power.

Joseph seemed a better candidate; he had considerable experience and standing having been Prime Minister of Egypt, the leader among his brothers and the most righteous of them all. But with his extraordinary rise to power, Joseph became “separate from his brethren” (Genesis 49, 26), he became distinct from them and did not gain their affection: “The archers have sorely grieved him and shot at him and hated him” (Genesis 49, 23).

Benjamin, unlike Joseph, was the unifying factor among the brothers, the one who re-united the family. This quality, which is so important in a leader, was manifested when the Kingdom of Israel was created, as in the days of Saul (who came from the tribe of Benjamin), and during the decline of the nation in exile, when it was necessary to gather all the Jews together as in the time of Esther (Esther 4, 16). But this quality manifests itself at the beginning or at the end of the historical process: “in the morning he shall devour the prey and at night he shall divide the spoil” (Genesis 49, 27).

Despite all their qualities, none of the above were deserving of the kingdom. Only Judah deserved to hold the scepter of leadership in his hand: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Genesis 49, 10). There were three reasons for this. The first was his ability to unite all the segments of the nation: “Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise... thy father’s children shall bow down before thee” (Genesis 49, 8). Then there was his ability to defeat the enemy: “thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies” (Genesis 49, 8). But the main secret of his success was his patience and statesmanship: “Judah is a lion’s whelp” (Genesis 49, 9). To begin with a whelp, then a lion. The knowledge that “the salvation of Israel comes gradually” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Berakhot 1A), is what bestowed on Judah the power of leadership, since he was not influenced by the pressures of the moment or temporary setbacks. Such a person remains faithful to his eternal goals and is able to confront the difficulties of reality.

In the evolution from whelp to lion, from smallness to greatness, Judah reached at the end of the process a point when “he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion, who shall rouse him up?” (Genesis 49, 9). This lion is an even greater lion, for he cannot be roused from his place. Patience is the foundation of stable leadership.

We can add to this the wonderful things written by the Rambam about the qualities which a king of Israel should always seek to have (Laws of Kings and Wars 2, lines 9, 10, 11): “In the same way as the Torah apportions to him this great honor, and everyone is required to honor him, so he is commanded to be of humble heart… and not behave haughtily towards Israel…and he will be merciful and compassionate to big and small, and he will do everything for their benefit, and he will respect the honor of the smallest among them. And when he speaks to the entire nation, he will speak softly... he should always conduct himself with extreme humility… and he will suffer their troubles, burdens, complaints and anger like a mother cares for her child.”