Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat VaYechi

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.


Parashat Vayechi 5758-1998

"You, your brothers shall praise"

Dr. Gabriel H. Cohen

Department of Bible

Jacob's blessings to his children summarize much of what he experienced in his life: the affair of Reuben and Bilhah ("For when you mounted your father's bed" 49:4), the massacre in Shechem ("Their weapons are tools of lawlessness" 49:5), the sale of Joseph ("Archers bitterly assailed him" 49:23), etc. Jacob's blessing also refers to the future of the tribes and makes reference to he who shall inherit the spiritual leadership of the people.

Three candidates are mentioned in the Torah as possible successors to Jacob: Reuben, Joseph and Judah. These three are the only ones of the twelve brothers who are portrayed in the Torah as individuals, whose views are expressed in personal conversations. Simeon and Benjamin are mentioned individually, but they themselves say nothing in the Torah. Of these three, the natural candidate for a successor to Jacob was Reuben ("Reuben, you are my first-born" 49:3); Jacob's preferred candidate was Joseph, Rachel's first-born ("Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons" 37:3), but the one who ultimately became leader was Judah. The underlying struggle among Jacob's sons for the status of number one is to be found in the Joseph narrative.[1]

Reuben slipped up in the affair with Bilhah (35:22), thereby losing his special status. However, even after that episode he still showed his responsibility for his brother's fate: by suggesting that the lad be put in a pit, he saved Joseph from his brother's hands. Even though Reuben is the main victim of his father's preference for Joseph, he feels responsible for his well-being, as the Midrash writes, "I am the first-born, and this foul-smelling affair reflects on no one but me" (Gen. Rabbah 84:15). However, the Sages cast aspersions on Reuben's wisdom and denigrated the way he rescued Joseph ("'The pit was empty; there was no water in it' -- there may have been no water, but there were snakes and scorpions," Shabbat 22a). Later, Reuben goes off from his brothers, believing Joseph still to be in the pit, and when he discovers that the lad is gone, he admits his personal failure in the matter ("Now, what am I to do?" 37:30).

As the story unfolds, Reuben's subsequent attempts to be the leader of his brothers also appear pathetic. When Joseph pretends not to recognize his brothers in Egypt, Reuben has nothing positive to offer to remedy the situation and can only make accusations about the past ("Did I not tell you, 'Do no wrong to the boy'? But you paid no heed" 42:22). When the brothers return to Jacob without Simeon and with a request in the name of the regent of Egypt that Benjamin, as well, be brought, Reuben in his typical rash way suggests that Benjamin be entrusted to him, adding: "You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you" (42:37). Jacob summarily rejects this proposal, and the Sages put the following response in his mouth: "Stupid first-born, are not your sons also mine?" (Gen. Rabbah 91.9).

Thus, Reuben is eliminated from the candidacy for leadership, as Jacob summarizes in his blessing: Although yours should be a position "exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor," you will not receive this status because you are "Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer" (49:3-4).

Jacob's favorite son for becoming leader of the people is Joseph, Rachel's first-born. (The Torah's command, forbidding preference for the son of a beloved wife over the son of a hated wife (Deut. 21:16) was not yet binding. ) The verse in which Jacob expresses his affection for Joseph in this regard is very revealing: "Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic" (37:3). It is not "Jacob" the patriarch of his family, but "Israel" the head of the Israelite people, who loves and chooses Joseph. To mark Joseph's future leadership Jacob gives him an ornamented tunic, a clear sign of leadership and dominion (cf. II Sam. 13:18; also Is. 22:21). His father also understands that Joseph's dreams are a prophecy of the future, therefore with respect to the dream in which the stars bowed down to Joseph it is written that "his father kept the matter in mind" (37:11).

Indeed, Joseph is an outstanding leader. Throughout the twenty-two years he was absent from his father's house Joseph proved himself: on the moral level (in the episode with Potiphar's wife), in his "prophetic" talents (solving dreams), in his economic and political leadership of Egypt, and even in his understanding of his brothers, whom he "cleansed" from the sin of selling him by providing them the opportunity for total repentance.[2] Thus, Joseph, who served as the leader of the great country of Egypt, merited being leader of the people, but for some reason when his father Jacob blessed his sons at the end of his life he conferred on Joseph only the economic benefits of first-born: "Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon"-- thus Joseph received a double portion, as customarily given the first-born, but he was not given the mantle of leadership. Amazingly, the scepter was given to Judah, the fourth son of Leah: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet" (49:10).[3]

Now it is true that aside from Reuben, the two other older brothers of Judah, Simeon and Levi, also disqualify themselves from receiving leadership positions because of the massacre at Shechem, and in Jacob's blessing they too receive a healthy dose of criticism. But what did Judah, of all sons, do to deserve being chosen to carry on in Jacob's footsteps at the head of the Jewish people?

Throughout the entire Joseph narrative one senses that Judah is the true spokesman of the brothers. Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to Egypt, ultimately leading to the latter's success (Gen. 37:25-27). He waits for an opportune moment ("Then they sat down to a meal") and a convenient event ("a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead"), and then presents his brothers with a practical proposal ("Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites"), giving several reasons, some of them rational ("What do we gain be killing our brother?") and some emotional ("and covering his blood"). His words are reasonable and strike a responsive chord, hence "His brothers agreed" (Heb. vayishmeu ehav, i.e., they heard, heeded) -- not hearing in the acoustic sense, but consenting with one's heart. Judah succeeds in uniting his brothers on a agreed plan; indeed, the word "brother" recurs in these verses many times.

When the brothers have to go to Egypt once more, taking Benjamin with them, it is Judah who persuades his father to send the child of his old age with them (43:3-10). First, Judah waits for his father to take the initiative in proposing another mission to Egypt ("their father said to them, 'Go again and procure some food for us'"). To convince his father, he speaks in the same terms as Jacob, "that we may live and not die" (42:2; 43:8), stressing that there is no alternative: if they do not all go, they will all die (Benjamin as well). In an attempt to reassure his father he plays down the perils of the journey ("For we could have been there and back twice if we had not dawdled"). Finally, Judah assumes full responsibility for Benjamin's life ("I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible"). In the wake of all this, Jacob consents to send Benjamin off with his brothers.

Judah's major oration to Joseph (44:8-34), after the king's goblet was found in Benjamin's sack, proves his leadership once more. Beyond the impressive rhetorical techniques Judah uses, which have been analyzed by Bible commentators, he also offers himself to the regent of Egypt as a slave instead of Benjamin -- evidence of his commitment and responsibility. Indeed, Joseph breaks down and, in a highly charged scene, reveals his true identity. Judah, it turns out, showed leadership throughout his life. Even in the complicated episode of Tamar (somewhat parallel to the episode of Reuben and Bilhah and the episodeof Potiphar's wife and Joseph), Judah in the eproves his responsibility and honesty ("She is more in the right than I").

Therefore it is Judah, according to his actions as described in the Torah, who is undoubtedly a true leader. But what made him preferable over Joseph, who was chosen by Jacob to be the leader of his sons? Does Judah have talents which Joseph lacks? The preference of Judah over Joseph is based solely on one factor: he is accepted by his brothers, and they themselves essentially choose him to be their leader. This fact is noted by Jacob in a new interpretation which he gives for his name: "You, O Judah (Yehudah), your brothers shall praise (yodukha)" (49:8). Judah was chosen for his role not by Jacob, but by the entire clan. Judah is thus the first leader to be chosen according to the will of the people.

[1] Cf. my article, "Manhigut be-Imut be-Sipurei Yosef," Hagut ba-Mikra 4, Tel Aviv 1984, pp. 129-149.

[2] This is how Abarbanel describes all Joseph's dealings with his brothers (including returning their money to their bags).

[3] The disposition of Jacob's inheritance to his sons is summarized in I Chronicles 5:1-2: "though Judah became more powerful than his brothers and a leader came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph.