By: Rav David Milston
“David Melech Yisrael Chai Vekayam”
Chapter 38 of Bereishit is enlightening. Immediately after the sale of Yosef, the Torah ‘takes a break’ from the narrative and focuses on a seemingly unconnected episode involving his brother Yehuda.
Rashi’s comments on the first verse of this chapter clarify the connection. He explains that the brothers blamed Yehuda for their actions. They thought that he should have talked them out of the whole plan rather than convince them to sell their brother. Therefore, Yehuda distanced himself, or was forced to distance himself, from his brothers.
There seems to be more to this juxtaposition than initially meets the eye. By the time this parasha is over we find ourselves introduced to the two main future leaders of Am Yisrael: Yosef (or Menashe and Efrayim,) and Yehuda.
From now on, and throughout the Tenach, we will observe the relationship between the tribes of Yosef and the tribe of Yehuda.
The first confrontation seems to be in our parasha. Yehuda saves Yosef’s life, but is also the direct cause of the sale and Yosef’s subsequent exile. Yosef has no control over the situation, and his fate appears to lie in Yehuda’s hands.
Those roles are very much reversed in Chapter 44:18, at the beginning of Parashat Vayigash. Binyamin has been accused of theft and seems to be looking at a heavy jail sentence. Yehuda, who has taken personal responsibility for his youngest brother, steps in to plead his case. In this instance, Yosef is very much in control, and not only the fate of Yehuda, but the fate of all the brothers appears to be in his hands.
The first indication of preference for leadership emerges in Ya’akov Avinu’s blessings to his children towards the end of Sefer Bereishit (49:10,) when he grants Yehuda the overall leadership of Am Yisrael. This reality is also apparent in the tribes’ position as they encamped in the desert – Degel Machane Yehuda (the flag of the tribe of Yehuda) is always at the head of the camp (Bamidbar 2.) And even though King Saul, from the tribe of Binyamin, precedes King David, from the tribe of Yehuda, the Davidic dynasty is the fulfillment of Ya’akov’s blessing.
However, when the Davidic dynasty falters in the days of Shlomo, and the Almighty seeks to split the kingdom, He immediately turns to Yosef, in the form of Yerovam, the son of Nevat, from the tribe of Efrayim (Melachim I, 11:26.) The proximity and the rivalry between these two leaders eventually becomes a cause for disunity and friction within the people of Israel. In fact, when prophesying future days of peace, the Almighty tells Yechezkel to take two pieces of wood, and on one to write ‘Yehuda,’ and on the other to write ‘Efrayim,’ as the representative of Yosef. Hashem then tells Yechezkel to put these two pieces of wood together in order to show the people that at the end of days these two prominent tribes will become one.
Both Yosef and Yehuda have obvious leadership talents, but what was it that gave Yehuda ‘the edge’? What was it that eventually determined his great status as Melech Yisrael?
This question is strengthened by the fact that when we look at the development of the tribes, from Parashat Vayeishev through to the end of Sefer Bereishit, it is in fact Yosef and not Yehuda who displays real leadership skills. Yosef shows the strength of character to remain loyal to his beliefs for over two decades whilst in the most unhealthy, promiscuous environment. Yosef runs the Egyptian economy with enviable tenacity. And it is Yosef who organizes the settlement and development of the tribes of Israel in the Land of Goshen. Yosef seems such an obvious candidate for leadership that it surely surprises us to hear that Yehuda is the brother destined for Malchut.
So what can we glean from Yehuda’s behavior that could indicate why Ya’akov preferred him for Malchut Yisrael?
As Rashi implies, leadership is not just determined by natural talents and abilities. Leadership also depends on the nature of the relationship between the leader and his followers. Beyond the responsibilities that Yehuda is prepared to take upon himself, he clearly has incredible influence over his siblings; he has their trust and their confidence. Whereas Reuven the firstborn tries to protect Yosef, he is essentially forced to do so by deceiving his brothers. Having convinced the brothers to throw Yosef into the pit, Reuven dare not suggest saving him further. He prefers to come back to rescue him later, when no one is looking. Reuven lacks the brothers’ trust. They will listen to him; they will even follow him, but only to a degree. Yehuda has their absolute trust, as is evident when they see the consequent grief of their father. They are genuinely annoyed at Yehuda for not having guided them correctly. There is no such anger directed towards Reuven.
Even after reconciliation, there is still a noticeable distance between Yosef and his brothers. Due to the nature of his work in Egypt, Yosef is forced to live in the center of town, whilst the rest of the family continues to grow in Goshen. Indeed, the brothers do not completely trust in Yosef even by the end of Bereishit.
Ya’akov, when looking to the future, understands that leadership cannot be defined purely by raw talent, but rather by the ability to communicate and influence the people in the correct way. By the end of Sefer Bereishit, Yehuda is clearly in a better position to influence and lead the people, despite Yosef’s superior resume and years of experience in government.
One additional trait is revealed in our parasha that is perhaps the key to understanding true leadership:
In Chapter 38, the Torah unravels the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Tamar is Yehuda’s daughter in-law. She has been widowed twice, having married Yehuda’s firstborn, and, after his death, consequently marrying his brother. Both of Yehuda’s sons died ‘prematurely,’ and Yehuda is apparently unaware of the reasons for their deaths. He concludes that marrying his third son to Tamar would be ‘tempting fate,’ although he does promise her that she will wed Shelah, his third son, in the future. However, it appears that Tamar knows very well that she is likely to remain unwed for the rest of her days.
Nevertheless, determined to play a role in the future generations of the tribes of Israel, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute. Yehuda meets with this ‘unknown’ woman, seemingly by chance, and leaves his staff and signet with her as collateral. When he later sends her real payment, she is nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, Tamar has become pregnant and can no longer disguise the fact. Yehuda is told, and assumes that she has broken the family rules. She was ‘betrothed’ to Shelah, and she should therefore be killed for her brazenness.
At this stage, Tamar secretly sends the staff and signet to Yehuda, clearly doing all she can to avoid public embarrassment. She explains that the owner of the staff and signet is the father of her baby. Yehuda is the only other person who knows the truth, and by revoking his original sentence he is more than likely to expose himself. Tamar has given him every opportunity to take cover, and continue as planned; no one - except the Almighty - need know the truth.
But Yehuda shows absolute character, so lacking in many contemporary leaders. Not only does he reveal the truth; he even shows real understanding for Tamar’s actions, admitting that he never really had any intention of marrying her to Shelah, and that her actions were therefore justified.
The children born from this relationship are the ancestors of King David, as if to say that Malchut was born from this chapter. Truth and the search for truth are absolute essentials for a Jewish King. The Jewish King is not a political survivor, but a representative of the Almighty God. The Jewish King has his own Sefer Torah that must accompany him at all times. He is the servant and the medium for Hashem’s counsel. As soon as this King becomes interested in his own status, as soon as he follows the people instead of listening to Hashem, he can no longer be our King.
This is why King Shaul loses Malchut. He prefers popularity with the masses to the Almighty’s command. This could never be said of David, as it could never be said of Yehuda. Yehuda was no politician; he was a servant of God in search of Truth. When faced with truth of any kind, irrespective of previous statements, irrespective of the consequent shame that may result from his reactions, Yehuda sees no option. He reveals the truth and immediately revokes the sentence. He can admit he is wrong, because his ego played no part in the episode. He is only interested in Truth and Justice, and this makes him a prime candidate for Malchut Yisrael.
We would do well to learn from this incredible virtue, and develop the ability to look at our own situations; admit our mistakes; review, and reanalyze our lives and our decisions.
How often do we refuse to rethink our decisions on principle? Let us be honest. The only real principle that directs us is our ego. How are others going to see us? If only we would take Yehuda’s example; if only we were prepared to deal with each suggestion objectively, even if it challenges a stance we have already taken. We must strive towards Truth at all costs. We must endeavor to do the right thing, and if we discover that we are wrong, then it is never too late to revoke, to turn around and act differently. Shame and embarrassment is nothing when compared with Emet.
We have seen two essential characteristics that define Yehuda as Malchut. His inherent understanding and connection with the people on the one hand, and his search for Truth on the other. If the King has the former but is lacking the latter then he is in real danger of becoming a follower of the people and not their leader. And if he possesses the latter but lacks the former, he may well be a man of truth but he will never succeed in influencing his people.
Yehuda merited both virtues, and thus: “David Melech Yisrael Chai Vekayam.”