Parashat Vayeshev: The leaders and the led

A unifying leader inspires people to seek his leadership.

ben gurion 88 (photo credit: )
ben gurion 88
(photo credit: )
What makes one worthy of Abraham's birthright? The biblical portions just concluded have been fraught with rivalries - literally life-and-death struggles - over which of Abraham's two sons and twin grandsons will be the most worthy bearer of his mission and covenant. Up for grabs is the destiny of the Jewish people - a nation chosen by God to bring the divine blessing to all the families of Earth; and what has occurred until now between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau (when the prize went in each case to the younger competitor) seems like child's play compared with what we shall find among the 12 sons of Jacob. What precisely are the siblings striving to attain? Leon Kass, in his monumental The Beginning of Wisdom, suggests it is no less than the preservation and perpetuation of the Abrahamic mission and vision. If I may define these concepts in my own terms, I would suggest that preservation requires the kind of economic and physical security which ensures the continuity of a specific family from generation to generation and protects it from being assimilated into a larger nation. The bearer of this gift may be said to have received the "blessing" (bracha). Perpetuation also requires a steadfast continuation of the unique lifestyle, values and goals which Abraham taught: commitment to the one God, familial dedication, compassionate justice. The bearer of this gift may be said to have received the birthright (bechora). We have previously seen how Isaac argued that the blessing and the birthright must be separated; he wanted to entrust the blessing of material wellbeing to the more aggressive Esau, and the birthright of perpetuation to the more spiritual Jacob. Rebekah disagreed, insisting that Jacob was worthy of and capable of expressing both the blessing and the birthright. It seemed as though Rebekah won the day, but I believe the Joseph stories will vindicate Isaac's conception. With a family of 12 sons (and one daughter), the stakes for the winner of Jacob's patrimony become much higher. His family is beginning to evolve into a nation, with 12 tribes poised to parallel the 12 chieftains who emerged from Esau (Gen. 36) and the 12 princes who founded the Arab nations of Ishmael (Gen. 25: 12-18). At this juncture, the chief characteristic of the family standard bearer would have to be his ability to create a united clan of "all for one and one for all," dedicated to the realization of the Abrahamic vision. Father Jacob's choice as to whom this right should be granted was a no-brainer: it must be the firstborn son of his beloved wife Rachel, for whom he had labored for 14 years and who had died as punishment for having stolen Laban's household gods for him (Jacob). And Joseph was "beautiful of form and appearance" (Gen. 39:6), smart and charismatic. No wonder Jacob gave him the striped tunic - a paternal gift which expressed the passing down of the birthright. But was Joseph the proper recipient? Unfortunately, he was hardly a unifier; indeed, he was an arrogant and supercilious divider. The Bible describes him as one who "shepherded his brothers [sic] among the sheep… and brought evil reports about them to his father." He probably lied about their deeds, which would explain why he was later punished measure for measure when Potiphar's wife lied about his deeds with her. He dreams of mastery over his siblings: all their sheaves of grain are bowing to his sheaf. A unifying leader inspires people to seek his leadership; he doesn't dream he is ruling over them by some supernatural fiat. Indeed, Joseph's conceit - oiled by his father's doting - borders on megalomania when he continues to dream that the sun, moon and 11 stars are also bowing before him. And while he dreams of sheaves of grain - a portent of material success and even the capability of providing food for countless families - agriculture is developing in Egypt, far from the sheep herding of the Abrahamic family in Israel. Joseph hardly succeeds in uniting his brothers; he arrogantly seeks to dominate them! The other leading candidate for the birthright/blessing is Judah, whom we meet close up when Joseph is cast into the pit. Whereas Reuben certainly means well, and does intend to save the hapless son of Rachel, he is totally ineffective, and never refers to Joseph as his brother. Judah, on the other hand, knows exactly how to speak to his siblings: He suggests a way they can rid themselves of Joseph and make a profit at the same time - while referring to Joseph twice as their brother and emphasizing that their hands dare not be lifted against their own flesh and blood. "And his brothers hearkened" - to Judah and not to Reuben. Our biblical portion emphasizes the silent rivalry between Joseph and Judah by switching scenes immediately following Joseph's sale into Egypt - precisely when the reader is anxious to discover what transpired in the life of this charismatic stranger in the strange land - and turning to Adullam and the tale of Judah and Tamar. Judah is apparently incensed (even disgusted) by the actions of his siblings and the favoritism displayed by their father. He marries a Canaanite woman, has two sons who die without children, and refuses to grant his daughter-in-law Tamar the right of yibum with his youngest son, Shelah. He apparently doesn't understand the in-depth responsibility engendered by the rite of yibum, by which a deceased man's brother takes his widow as his own to pass the dead man's name along to the future. He is taught that lesson - as well as justice and compassionate righteousness - by Tamar, who disguises herself as a harlot much as Jacob disguised himself as Esau. Judah has relations with her for the price of young goats (it is important to note that Joseph's tunic was dipped in goat's blood and Jacob wore goat skins to procure the birthright). Judah gives her his signet ring, cord and staff as a pledge. When Tamar's-out-of-wedlock pregnancy is discovered, Judah judges that she be burnt to death. She immediately dispatches the signet, cord and staff, declaring that the owner of these objects is the father of her unborn child. Judah then publicly admits: "She is more righteous than I." Tamar gives birth to twins, Perez (who sneaked up from behind like Jacob/Ya'acov) and Zerah. Perez is the progenitor of Boaz (Gen. 38). God chose Abraham, and singled him out "to instruct his household after him… to observe the way of the Lord and to do compassion and righteousness…." (18:19). When Judah publicly acknowledges Tamar's integrity and saves her from death, he is expressing compassionate righteousness and justice in depth. Not only does he demonstrate his ability to lead and unite his brothers; his ethical sensitivity shows the extent to which he will be able to perpetuate the Abrahamic ideal. Joseph may be a charismatic provider of food, but thus far in our story he is far too stuck on himself and Egypt's wealth to leave room for either God or his brothers. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.