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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayechi: Accepting leadership
December 13, 2007
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 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 Joseph will precede Mashiach the son of David from the Tribe of Judah. We live in a time where we sorely lack respect for leaders and authority.
Special nature and ability
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob blesses his children before he passes away. Each son 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 that particular son’s special nature and ability. In this way, Jacob prepared his children and their future 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 this way he will be able to rectify his ways for the future. Rashi (49:8) quotes from the Midrash that when Judah saw his older brothers Reuven, Shimon and Levy, being rebuked, he drew back in fear that Jacob may admonish him as well for 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 (38:26) explains 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 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.
On the one hand, a Jewish king is expected to understand his responsibility as a ruling monarch, and 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 (see 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 king over Israel.”
King David, who was a descendant from Judah, reacted very differently. When he led his men in battle he showed himself as a fearless leader. But 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 the wording of Jacob’s blessing we learn that the success of a leader is not only dependent on his leadership qualities. Jacob said, “Judah, you your brothers shall acknowledge.” This shows the importance of the acceptance of the people he is leading. This is duly expressed in Parashas Shoftim (Devarim 17:15) where the Torah instructs how to appoint king and 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 any person with authority such as a rabbi and a teacher. As it says, in Pirkei Avos (1:6) “Make yourself a teacher.” The Rambam comments on this that only if you accept a person as your mentor will you be able to benefit and learn from him.
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 to be appointed 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 applies by 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 that possess these qualities can be trusted that they will act selflessly and judge honestly.
Joseph before Judah
The commentaries explain that this necessity of acceptance was also the message hinted at in Josephs’ dream. The dream reflected the fact that Joseph was the Divinely- appointed leader of his brothers at the time. Joseph here set a precedent in the pattern of leadership in the Jewish people. We find that the first king in Israel, Saul, was a descendant of Rachel, and in the future, Mashiach the son of Joseph, will precede Mashiach the son of David from the Tribe of Judah. They follow in the footsteps of Joseph who was 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 the fact that Rachel was intended to be the original wife of Jacob. Just as she was replaced by Leah, in the same way her offspring were and will be the original leaders, later to be replaced by the offspring of Leah.
Lacking respect for leaders
We live in a time where there is a tremendous lack of respect for leaders and authority. 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 first of all due to the lack of integrity and honesty of many of those who have been voted into power. In addition to this it has a lot to do with the general attitude of selfishness and self-centeredness of people in today’s society. This is the biggest curse that can hit mankind. The Talmud (Chagigah 14a) discusses the calamities and curses that the prophet Isaiah warned about and says that the worst of them all is (Isaiah 3:5) “the young will rise in arrogance 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 look up to previous generations as being greater in wisdom and morality. As Rabbi Yacov Kamenetsky once explained that the closer a generation is to the revelation at Mount Sinai the greater it is (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Devarim: No respect, no consistency August 10, 2005). We must distance ourselves from the decay of the society around us and embrace the true values handed down from earlier generations.
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. These sages accepted their responsibility and with 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 we clearly see the Divine hand behind salvaging some of our greatest leaders from the Holocaust inferno. Under their wise guidance we have merited to rebuild 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. In this way we educate our children and grandchildren, and show 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.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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