The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Portion of Vayigash, 1996
"The Scepter Shall Not Depart From Judah"
Choosing a Leader of Israel
Professor Jacob Klein
Department of Hebrew and Bible
The history of the twelve sons of Jacob prefigures that of their descendants, the children of Israel, as if they comprised a kind of general rehearsal for the history of the Jewish people in its own land. What the sons did as individuals, and the roles each performed, foreshadows forth the actions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel in history. In the Portions of Vayishlach, Vayeshev and Vayigash, the future leadership of the people takes shape as it becomes increasingly clear who will be the leader in time to come--that is, who will be the founding father of Israel's royal dynasty. One by one the various candidates are disqualified, until through a process of natural selection the true leader of Israel emerges.
As the first-born, Reuben ought to lead his brothers. But at an early point he stumbles and is found to be unworthy: "And it was, when Israel [Jacob] dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine;1 and Israel heard about it"2 (Gen. 35:22). Nor does Jacob rely upon Reuben later on when he offers to take charge of Benjamin (42:37-38). Reuben also fails in the part he attempts to play in the brothers' plot against Joseph. While his proposal that Joseph should not be killed but thrown into a pit is accepted, his plan to later rescue him and restore him to his father is confounded when Joseph, at Judah's suggestion, is sold to the Ishmaelites (37:21-22, 29).
2. Simeon and Levi
Those next inline for leadership, were the brothers born after Reuben, Simeon and Levi. They were disqualified however because of their role in the killing of the population of Shechem. To be sure, all Jacob's sons took part in the plan to trick the inhabitants of Shechem after their sister Dina had been raped by the son of its ruler, Hamor, and make them vulnerable to attack, and all shared in the spoils. Nevertheless, it was Simeon and Levi who did the actual dirty work: "On the third day, when [the Shechemites] were in pain, Simeon and Levi, brothers of Dina, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and killed every male. And they put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, and took Dina out of Shechem's house and went away" (Gen. 34:25-26). And what was Jacob's reaction? "Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, 'You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; I am few in number, so that if they gather against me and smite me, I and my household will be destroyed" (v. 30). Jacob in his testament, specifically rejects Simeon and Levi as possible leaders: "Simeon and Levi are brothers, their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person enter their council, or my being be joined to their company; for they have slain a man in their anger and lamed an ox at their pleasure. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their wrath, so relentless; I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel" (Gen. 49:5-7).
Joseph stands head and shoulders above his brothers: he is brilliant, wise, honest, righteous -- a leader from birth. In qualities and morals he was undoubtedly superior to his brothers; for he was willing to suffer and even die for the sake of his principles. He also enjoyed a special status as the first-born of one of Jacob's principal wives (Rachel, the wife he loved best). In every way he is fit to be the leader, but he has one major drawbacl: he is not acceptable to his brothers. In his youth--whether it was his own fault or not--he is hated by them, and even when, as the Egyptian vice-regent, he deals kindly with them and speaks soothingly to them he is still isolated, and they suspect his good faith and his intentions (see Gen. 45:3; 50:15-21). He therefore cannot be accorded tribal leadership. His fate is to be a counselor who comes second only to the king in a foreign court. He is a great man, but not among his own people!
In the struggle for leadership it is Judah who prevails. What does he do to achieve it, and what makes him worthy of being the progenitor of the royal house of David? He may be a decent human being, but he is certainly not a saint. We never hear of his risking his life for the sake of something in which he believes, nor is he a genius like Joseph. But he has other qualities which make him fit to lead. Unlike Joseph, he is acceptable to his brothers--a practical man, sensible and vigorous, a man with charisma. He undergoes three tests of character and emerges from each with honor, until it is clear that he is entitled to the leadership.
a. The first test: Judah's role in the selling of Joseph
Reuben suggests that Joseph should be thrown into a pit: "Do not shed blood, throw him into that pit out in the wilderness (Genesis 37:22)."3 He says this in order to save Joseph and take him home to his father, but although his intention is good it is impractical. If he were to succeed in restoring Joseph to Jacob he would become embroiled with his brothers, who would lose all faith in him. Similarly, he would perpetuate the unhealthy family situation: the tension between Joseph and the other brothers would remain and would, no doubt, eventually worsen to the point of murder.
Judah's suggestion is simple and much more workable, and it is adopted at once: "What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites,but let us not touch him ourselves, for he is our brother, our own flesh'." This straightforward proposal is phrased in an original and persuasive manner. First of all, we shall not gain anything financially from killing Joseph. Second, he is our brother, and there is no greater sin, nor any greater cruelty, than killing a brother.4 Instead, let him be sold to the Ishmaelites. Three goals are thereby achieved: the brothers will avoid bloodshed; they will earn a good sum of money which they can share; and the family will be permanently rid of a pest: i.e. the element that creates strain will disappear and the household quieten down. Finally, in this way Joseph's conceit will meet its punishment. And so, at once, the Torah records "his brothers agreed to him."
Here Judah seizes leadership, gives practical advice of the lesser-of-two-evils type. His behavior can hardly be called gallant, but unlike Reuben he does not operate by tricking his brothers but by making a suggestion which he can stand by honorably and with credibility. In the knowledge that it would be useless, he does not attempt to oppose his brothers, but exploits the situation--the chance passing of the Ishmaelites--and acts quickly and decisively.
b. The second test: the affair of Tamar
Judah takes Tamar as a wife for his first-born son Er, and Er dies without issue. He gives his second son, Onan, to her in a levirate marriage (according to the law by which a man must marry his brother's childless widow, to give her children), and Onan too dies. What should Judah do? The law states that he should arrange a levirate marriage for Tamar with his youngest son, Shelah, but he is afraid that Shelah too will die: "Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, 'Stay as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up', for he thought, Lest he too die like his brothers'" (Gen. 38:11). If Judah were as righteous as Joseph, he might possibly admit to Tamar outright that she will never be married to Shelah, but he does not. Out of human weakness, he acts deceitfully and immorally.5 But it is hard to condemn him: every affectionate father would do the same in his situation. However, he piles one sin on top of another, for when it emerges that Tamar is pregnant (which can only be as the result of fornication), without batting an eyelid he orders her to be burnt.
On the way to her execution, Tamar sends Judah his signs of office (given by him to her when, not knowing who she was, he slept with her), " Judah recognized them, and said, 'She is more in the right than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son" (Ge. 38:26). As a result, his son Peretz is born, and it is from Peretz that the dynasty of David arises. Here we see Judah's greatness as a leader: he admits the mistake which he has made and does not attempt to justify himself, although he has acted under constraint and without much alternative. He accepts full responsibility both for his actions and for his shortcomings.
c. The third test: responsibility for Benjamin in Egypt
Once again Judah's leadership stands out clearly. He succeeds in persuading Jacob, who is afraid that if Benjamin is sent down to Egypt he will lose him, to entrust Benjamin to him: "Send now the boy with me, and let us be on our way, that we may llive [since they will be able to buy food in Egypt] and not die, both we and you and our little children." Can this simple and reasonable suggestion be refused? Judah goes on, "I, myself, will be his guarantor; you may demand him of me. If I do not bring him back to you ... then I will have sinned against you forever" (Gen. 43:8-10).6 And his father, Jacob who found himself unable to rely upon Reuben, entrusts Benjamin to Judah. Trustworthiness and strength: these are the two qualities which particularly distinguish Judah. To him may one's dearest possession be entrusted! And when the test comes and Joseph seeks to imprison Benjamin, Judah once again assumes a leading role and in a moving and well-composed speech offers himself as a slave in Benjamin's place (Gen. 43:33). Here, then, is an example of a leader who accepts responsibility and stands by his promises.
d. Judah's selection through Jacob's will
In his will, the Patriarch Jacob recognizes Judah's undisputed leadership and explicitly assigns kingly dominion to him: "Judah, you shall your brothers praise yodukha. Your hand shall be on the nape of your enemies, the sons of your father shall bow low to you. A lion's whelp is Judah; from the prey, my son, have you gone up" (Gen. 49:8-9). Taken in its simplest sense, Jacob's blessing means that Judah's brothers will acknowledge his leadership.7 He will put his enemies to flight, and for this reason all his brothers will be willing to accept his authority He is compared to a young lion returning to his den after taking his prey (Luzzatto).
But it is the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, which reflects the homiletic insights of the Sages, that best expresses the general spirit of these verses. Onkelos senses the presence of allusions to two of the cardinal tests in Judah's life, on account of which he was vouchsafed the leadership. Thus Onkelos understands "Judah, you shall your brothers praise (literally also "acknowledge") as a reference to Judah's admission of wrongdoing with regard to Tamar and acceptance of responsibility,8 while he takes "from the prey, my son, have you gone up" as a reference to Judah's part in the sale of Joseph, when he prevented his brothers from killing him.9
It is through the merit of these deeds, by which Judah demonstrated his leadership, that "the scepter shall not depart from Judah"! (Genesis 49:10).
1. According to Rashi, Reuben acted out of jealousy on behalf of his mother Leah, since after Rachel's death Jacob moved his bed to the tent of Bilhah, Rachel's maidservant. According to Ramban, his motive may have been to prevent the birth of a further heir to Jacob.
2. In Ramban's view, Jacob did not disinherit Reuben but merely took away his birthright (behhora).Thus the plain meaning of the verse is :"Unstable as water, you shall not excel, for you went up upon your father's couch" (Gen. 49:4) is that Jacob, having heard about Reuben's action, drew the necessary conclusion: that Reuben was not fit to enjoy the status of the first-born and concomitant position of leadership.
3. "A place where no people are to be found, and he will die by himself" (Rashbam).
4. He returns to this point and stresses it at the end: "Let us not touch him ourselves, for he is our brother, our flesh."
5. "He would put her off with pretexts, for he said, Lest he die, for she is now a woman of whom it may be presumed that her husband will die young" (Rashi).
6. That is to say, there is no punishment greater than the sin itself (Ben Amozag, Em la-Mikra).
7. The word here translated as "will praise you" (yodukha) is explained by Rashbam as "will make you king," on the analogy of Psalms 45:18: "For therefore the peoples yehodukha," which he understands as "will recognize you as king."
8. In Onkelos' words: "Judah, you were not ashamed to admit (your mistake), threfore, your brethren will identify themselves by your name," i.e. they will be called Jews (or Judeans).
9. In Onkelos' words: "For you removed yourself from the capital crime of murdering my son (=Joseph)."
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