Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues

Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayechi: Accepting leadership


Jacob blessed each son according to the son's special nature and ability. The blessings of the first three children were in the form of admonitions regarding their past shortcomings. Judah showed his quality as a leader in that very circumstance when he admitted and acknowledged that Tamar was expecting his child. King Saul was dethroned when he disobeyed the prophet Samuel. King David, on the other hand, accepted full responsibility for his mistake. From Jacob's blessing we learn that the success of a leader is not only dependent on his leadership qualities but as much on the acceptance of the people he is leading. Mashiach the son of the Joseph will precede Mashiach the son of David from the Tribe of Judah. We live in a time where we sorely lack the respect for leaders and authorities.

Special nature and ability

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob blesses his children before he passes away. Each of the sons was blessed with a different blessing. From this we learn that these blessings were not just a father's good wishes for his children. Rather, Jacob with his Divine inspiration blessed each son according to the son's special nature and ability. In this way, Jacob prepared his children and their offspring for their purpose in life. With these blessings the twelve children developed into the twelve tribes of the Jewish nation, each one with their own distinct character and purpose.


The blessings of the first three children seem strange as they were admonitions regarding their past shortcomings rather than blessings for the future. However, the truth is that it is the greatest blessing for a person to know his mistakes in order to be able to rectify his ways for the future. Rashi (49:8) quotes the Midrash that when Judah saw his older brothers Reuben, Shimon and Levy, being rebuked, he drew back in fear that Jacob may admonish him as well over his relationship with Tamar. However, Jacob called him in an appeasing manner and said, (ibid):"Judah, you your brothers shall acknowledge", implying that Judah was different than his older brothers. Judah was not admonished for his mistake because he did not have free choice when he approached Tamar. Rashi explains (38:26) in the name of our sages that when Judah said, "She [Tamar] is righteous; it is from me", a heavenly voice sounded and exclaimed: "It is from Me" meaning that G'd had brought about the union between Judah and Tamar in order that the two of them should merit to be the source of the royal dynasty of the Jewish people.

Thanking and acknowledging

Judah showed his quality as a leader in that very circumstance when he admitted and acknowledged that Tamar was expecting his child. Targum Jonathan explains the beginning of Jacob's blessing to Judah in this manner: "Judah, you admitted in the incident with Tamar; therefore, your brothers will acknowledge you and will call themselves Yehudaim in your name." His very name "Judah" testifies to this quality of his as it is connected with the Hebrew word "hodaah" which has the double meaning of thanking and acknowledging. These two character traits are closely connected since a person who offers thanks to another thereby acknowledges a gift received or a service rendered. This is what it takes to be a true leader. He must be able to appreciate others, as well as admitting his own mistakes. Such a person, with his high level of integrity, rightfully merits that his brothers' acknowledge him as leader.

King Saul

A Jewish king is expected on one hand to understand his responsibility as a ruling monarch not to get sidetracked by the wishes of his subjects. On the other hand, he must be able to admit his own mistakes. King Saul was dethroned when he disobeyed the prophet Samuel who had instructed him to kill the nation of Amalek as well as their cattle. When the prophet asked him why he did not listen to the voice of G'd he first claimed that he had listened and fulfilled his mission (Samuel 1:15:20). Eventually, he admitted his mistake and said (ibid 24): "I have sinned because I transgressed the words of G'd and your word, for I feared the people and I listened to their voice." Samuel's immediate response was (ibid 26): "Since you rejected the word of G'd, G'd rejected you as being king over Israel."

King David

King David, , a descendant from Judah, on the other hand, led his men in battle and showed himself at the same time as a humble G'd fearing person as well as a fearless leader. When the Prophet Nathan confronted him in the name of G'd and admonished him for causing the death of Uriah and taking his wife, David immediately admitted and said: (ibid 2:12:13) "I have sinned to G'd." Similarly, when G'd punished the Jewish people with a three-year famine, the Talmud (Yevamot 78b) relates that King David came to the realization that it was his mistake as a leader that had caused the famine and he accepted full responsibility.

Subject to acceptance

From Jacob's blessing we learn that the success of a leader is not only dependent on his leadership qualities but as much on the acceptance of the people he is leading. This is again expressed later (Devarim 17:15) where it says: "You shall surely set over yourself a king." A king can only rule successfully when his subjects accept his sovereignty. The same applies to a rabbi and a teacher. As it says, in Pirkei Avos (1:6) "Make yourself a teacher" to which the Rambam comments that only if you accept him as your mentor will you be able to benefit by learning from him.

High Priest

Similarly we find that the Kohein Gadol (high priest) had to be greater than the other Kohanim in wisdom and affluence, as well as in other areas. The Talmud (Yuma 18a) teaches that if the Kohein who was suited to be a Kohein Gadol was not well to do, the other Kohanim would be obligated to donate money to the candidate to make him rich. In this way they acknowledged that he was worthy of being their leader and accepted him as such. The Talmud (Chulin 134b) says that the same thing applies in other spiritual leadership positions. This does not only empower the leader to act with the needed authority. Even more so it prevents corruption. When Yisro, Moses' father-in-law, advised him how to appoint leaders he put great emphasis on this. He told him to seek out (Shemos 18:212) "Men of affluence (who will have no need to flatter and please anyone - Rashi), G'd fearing people (who fear only G'd and not man - Ibn Ezra), men of truth (who can be trusted and relied upon - Rashi), people who despise money." People with these qualities can be trusted that they will act selflessly and judge honestly.

Joseph before Judah

The commentaries explain that the necessity of acceptance was also the message hinted at in Josephs' dream, as he was the divinely appointed leader of his brothers in his time. Just as we find that the first king in Israel, Saul, was a descendant of Rachel, and in the future, Mashiach the son of Joseph, will proceed Mashiach the son of David from the Tribe of Judah, so too was Joseph divinely chosen to be the leader till the time came for Judah to take upon himself the mantle of leadership. The Kabbalists explain that this is the outcome of Rachel being the intended original wife of Jacob. Just as she was replaced by Leah, in the same way her offspring were and will be the original leaders to later be replaced by the offspring of Leah.

Lacking respect for leaders

We live in a time where there is a tremendous lack of the respect for leaders and authorities. We clearly see the destruction of society that is an outcome of this deficiency. It manifests itself not only in the political world, where corruption is rampant, but also in communities, classrooms and private homes. The cause of this malady in the public area is due to both the lack of integrity and honesty of many of those who have been voted into power as well as the general attitude of selfishness and self-centeredness of people in general. This is the biggest curse that can hit a society, as the Talmud (Chagigah 14a) says regarding the calamities and curses that the prophet Isaiah warned about. The worst of them all is (Isaiah 3:5) "the young will raise themselves against the elders, and the vagrants against the respected leaders." The world around us considers our society to be more progressed and smarter than previous generations. From a Torah viewpoint we know that we look up to previous generations as being greater in wisdom and morality. As Rabbi Yacov Kamenetsky once explained that the closer to the revelation at Mount Sinai the greater is the generation. We must distance ourselves from the decay of the society around us and embrace the true values handed down from earlier generations.

True leaders

The Jewish nation's true leaders throughout our history have always been the Torah sages who with their wisdom, integrity and honesty led the nation with selfless dedication. In every generation the Jewish people knew instinctively who these leaders were. There was no need for elections or campaigns. They accepted their responsibility and based on their vast Torah knowledge led their communities in all situations. Right up to our time, we have seen this pattern repeat itself and we trust that G'd will ensure that this will continue. We can gain much strength and comfort as one can clearly see the Divine hand behind salvaging from the Holocaust inferno great leaders who helped rebuild the Jewish communities worldwide. Only when we accept the leadership of today's Torah sages and show respect for their authority can we continue this important tradition. This is the only way to educate our children and grandchildren, showing them how we accept the authority of our Torah leadership, to guide us toward the coming of Mashiach speedily in our days.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel