Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Walk Article-Vayeshev



Rabbi David Walk


            Here we are once again beginning that part of Genesis usually called the Joseph stories.  Many times over the years I've written or spoken about the fact that these readings should really be called The Yehudah v. Yosef Chronicles, because these stories continually compare and contrast Yehudah with Yosef.  I know that in the world at large Yosef has the better reputation.  I mean there's even a play and movie about his wardrobe.  I think that a presentation of the Yehudah and Tamar tale could be a hit, but it would be rated 'R'.  Personally, I always favored Yehudah.  Yosef comes across as a little self absorbed in ways that Yehudah avoided.  However, my preference for Yehudah is not our topic this week.  Here's my question:  Since sibling rivalry is the leit motif for the entire book of Genesis, we should expect to encounter a challenge to Yosef's primacy among the brothers, but is Yehudah the inevitable contender?  I think not.  So, how does Yehudah emerge as the main rival to the obvious leadership of Yosef?

            The answer to this question doesn't begin with Yehudah.  There were other more obvious candidates who disqualified themselves.  Remember, Yehudah was born fourth, a lowly perch from which to mount a challenge for supremacy.  It seems that last week's parsha had an ongoing secondary agenda, which was to eliminate the three older brothers of Yehudah from contention for the mantle.  First we have the terrible incident at Shechem where Shimon and Levi basically slaughter the entire city.  I have a feeling that not only Ya'akov was horrified by this.  I would imagine that the rest of the family was similarly appalled.  After all no other brothers joined them in the mayhem. So, this disgust by the family eliminates numbers two and three in the pecking order from consideration.

            However, the number one contender was Reuvein.  In last week's reading he also committed an atrocity.  We're just not sure what he did.  The verse (Genesis 35:22) declares that he had relations with his father's concubine, but many commentaries aver that he removed Bilhah's bed from his father's tent.  All this was in an apparent attempt to establish his mother Leah as the mistress of the household.  Rachel had apparently ruled the roost, but with her demise Reuvein wants to buttress his beloved mother's position.  He apparently feared that Rachel's maid servant would replace her in Ya'akov's affections.  This offense, however, didn't totally disqualify him for potential leadership.  We see two future attempts by Reuvein to claim the alpha position in the family.  Both fail miserably.  This week he tries to save Yosef from the pit, but Yehudah beats him to the punch by first selling him into slavery.  And next week he offers to vouchsafe for Binyamin when the brothers return to Egypt.  Again he doesn't make the grade, and Yehudah replaces him. I think that we see a pattern.  Reuvein's efforts are continually trumped by Yehudah.  Ultimately, Yehudah is the candidate for the Leah party almost by default.

            It's almost by default, but not entirely.  Yehudah shows flashes of strong leadership (37:26), and the brothers defer to him.  But the moment he first transcended the others came at an unexpected moment.  His daughter in law, Tamar, had disguised herself as a harlot and seduced him.  She did this to have a child from the house of Israel, after her two husbands, both sons of Yehudah had died.  She felt justified.  When her pregnancy begins to show the family assumes that she has been unfaithful to her family obligation.  As she is being taken out to be burned for her assumed crime, she sends proof to Yehudah that he is the father.  He suspends the proceedings with the announcement:  She is more righteous than I (38:26).  The Talmud questions if we should publicly expound this story and concludes: One might have thought that we should not, for it is disgraceful for Yehudah. The Beraita teaches to the contrary; it is praiseworthy that he acknowledged his guilt (Megilla 25b).  Actually, the Hebrew word for acknowledge, confess and thank is based on the same root as our hero's name, Yehudah.  In a prescient moment Leah named her fourth son for the strength of character he would possess. 

            Yehudah, though, wasn't finished behaving in ways we admire.  In next week's Torah reading at a crucial moment for the family, he offers to guarantee the safety of Binyamin as the brothers prepare to go back to Egypt for relief from the fearful famine afflicting the entire region.  Even the still grieving Ya'akov falls under the sway of Yehudah's strength of character, and agrees.  In two weeks his position is solidified by his confrontation with Yosef.  As the whole cowers before the mysterious Viceroy of Egypt, Yehudah stands up for his framed brother by demanding that he be allowed to be punished in his brother's stead, because this would save the family patriarch.  By this time Yosef had seen it all, and even he is impressed by the presence of Yehudah.  The supremacy of Yehudah is confirmed by Ya'akov when he is sent first to Egypt to pave the way by arranging for the family's stay in the world's granary.  All of these developments are, of course, confirmed by Ya'akov in his death bed blessings:  The scepter of rule will never depart from Yehudah (49:10).

            Ultimately Yehudah and his descendant David become the paradigm for leadership.  Therefore we can conclude that great leadership requires two attributes.  First and, perhaps, foremost one must have the humility and self confidence to admit error. Too many kings and presidents haven't had the strength of character to acknowledge mistakes, and often that has been their downfall (think Nixon).  Secondly, a leader must see him or herself as a servant to protect those who are being led.  Right or wrong Truman dropped the bombs in 1945 to save American lives.  Even if that was bad policy it was great leadership.

            It's wonderful to read these stories again every year, but it's even more important to be inspired by them to achieve our own greater personality development.