Parashat Veyehi: Humility - the ultimate qualification

Jacob was certainly aware of the problematic aspects of his son's dreams, but was also enamored of their universalism and lofty ambition.

josephs tomb 888 224 (photo credit: AP [file])
josephs tomb 888 224
(photo credit: AP [file])
"Judah, your brothers will praise and acknowledge you… the sons of your father will bow down to you… the scepter shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler's staff from between his feet until peace (shilo) will come; unto him shall be the ingathering of the nations" (Genesis 49:8-10) The aged Jacob makes it indubitably clear that it is Judah - and not Joseph - who is to receive the birthright (bechora), despite the cloak of many colors he had given Joseph decades before, and which was to have symbolized the bestowal of the birthright. To be sure, Joseph does receive the double blessing of material prosperity (beracha - Gen. 22-26, esp. 25); but this is only a consolation prize next to the bequeathal of majesty and messianic leadership. What made Jacob change his mind? I would submit that the first glimmerings of doubt came with Joseph's dreams: the brothers' sheaves of grain bowing to his, and the sun, moon and stars bowing to him. These arrogant visions added an ideological basis to the jealousy of the brothers, almost providing just cause for getting rid of this upstart "Jacobson" who hankers after the agriculture of Egypt and sees himself - and not God - at center stage. When we remember Jacob's dream of a ladder uniting heaven and earth, God standing at its apex, with the patriarch requesting safe return to Israel, Joseph's dreams appear sacrilegious at best. "The brothers were jealous of him, whereas his father "observed the matter [Hebrew, davar] closely," waiting to see the outcome, reserving judgment (37:11). Jacob was certainly aware of the problematic aspects of his son's dreams, but was also enamored of their universalism and lofty ambition. If Joseph would only recognize God as the director of human affairs; if Joseph would only become more humble, if Joseph would stop bragging to everyone about his dreams and begin to help realize the dreams of others, then his universalism and ambition could be seen as crucial characteristics of the King Messiah who will teach the world to accept a God of morality, compassion and peace. But this would depend on how the brash and callow Joseph matures… And there was one more element necessary for the birthright: its recipient would have to unify the sons of Israel. After all, only a united Israel has a chance to influence the world. And tragically, until this point Joseph has been the symbol of divisiveness, him above his brothers, and them against him. To this end, Jacob sends Joseph on a mission to look after his brothers' shalom (peace, welfare) after his arrogant actions and dreams prevented them from speaking to him in shalom (37:14, cf to 37:4), and then to bring back the crucial matter (davar) that his father had been closely observing (37:11, and 37:13, 14). Alas, the mission only exacerbates the divisiveness, resulting in the return of only a bloodied cloak in place of the arrogant dreamer. This aborted mission to "test" Joseph's ability to unite his brothers - and his response of hineni ("here am I") despite the apparent danger - will haunt Jacob for decades, casting upon him the guilt for effectuating, albeit unwittingly, the "Sacrifice of Joseph" (Leon Kass's phrase). And although Joseph does mature in many ways as he comes to understand that he is not all-powerful, succeeds in placing God at the center (Gen. 41:16), and finally recognizes Israel as his homeland by asking to be buried there (Gen. 50:2,5), he never becomes truly humble; although he magnanimously forgives his brothers, he is never able to admit his share in the crime and beg for their forgiveness and he - as Grand Vizier - never even contacted his father to say he was alive, thus continuing to keep the family divided. The one brother who has always managed to gain the voluntary agreement of his brothers (when they are persuaded by him not to slay Joseph but to sell him, Gen 37:26,27) and even of his father (to send Benjamin to the Grand Vizier with the rest of the brothers in Gen 43:8-10) is Judah; the only brother who is truly humble, with the ability to repent and admit his guilt before God and humanity (when he says about the pregnant Tamar: "She is more righteous than I," Gen. 38:26); and the only brother clever enough to see through the masquerade of the Grand Vizier, and to craft a defense of Benjamin in a way which will inspire Joseph to reveal himself, is again Judah. The aged Jacob therefore decides that Judah is the most outstanding of the 12, truly worthy of bearing the birthright of Israel. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.