Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Vayehi: Who is a leader and what is leadership?

0 Comments 27 December 2017

What makes a good leader? In his dvar Torah to Parashat Vayehi, Rabbi Dubi Haiyun shows us the wisdom of Jacob, who loved and saw each of his children for who they were.

Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow — Jacob’s sons brought him the news of the death of Joseph. Public domain

By Rabbi Dov (Dubi) Haiyun

The words of Jacob, lying in pain on his deathbed, as he blesses his sons show us just how much he loved them but nevertheless also that he is not blind to the uniqueness of each one. And so, as one who fought for the first-right since he was the more suitable one to lead the family and move it into the future, so too here the giving of first-born rights and future leadership is done so as to be transferred to the suitable son and not as might be expected and according to the order of birth. In order to receive the first-born rights of leadership,  one must show proven ability and here Jacob teaches us who is a leader and what is leadership.

Reuven, the first son, apparently should have received the blessing of the first-born.  However, he revealed poor leadership ability all the way,  failing each time he actually tried to lead. This occured both when Joseph was thrown into the pit and in his foolish statement to his father that if he doesn’t return with Benjamin, Jacob will kill Reuven’s two sons, Jacob’s grandsons, and, of course, what he did to Bilhah after Rachel’s death.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. [You should have been] superior in rank and superior in power. [You have] the restlessness of water; [therefore,] you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned [Him Who] ascended upon my bed.” -Genesis  49:3-4

Simon and Levi are possessed of leadership abilities but their extremism is their downfall. There is a need for people who are strong-willed but to the right degree. Their willfulness is not restrained enough and so they cannot lead the people. Simon and Levi are spread out and swallowed into the people of Israel in small doses. Their behavior in the case of Dina profoundly angered Jacob, justifiably. Beyond the injustice and overreaction in what they did, they endangered the entire family in their extreme and zealous behavior. Levi is the zealot who doesn’t see others beyond his own personal truth and so it was also in the case of the golden calf and that is why Jacob gives them this blessing:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; stolen instruments are their weapons. Let my soul not enter their counsel; my honor, you shall not join their assembly, for in their wrath they killed a man, and with their will they hamstrung a bull. Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel.” -Genesis 49: 5-7

Judah, the fourth son receives the status of the first-born —the leadership — as he shows true leadership, the ability to lead into the future. Judah is human and aware of (and admits) his mistakes. Judah has the ability to take full responsibility for his actions, to cope with difficult situations and to know how to overcome them. Judah knows to keep to his commitments and stands behind the obligations he takes on. Judah and his descendents know to lead the people of Israel into the future. Judah is a pragmatic leader who knows to stand his ground but also to compromise when that is needed. Judah knows how to approach another leader and to speak to him in a common language. And that is why Judah receives this blessing:

“Judah, [as for] you, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies, [and] your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you. A cub [and] a grown lion is Judah. From the prey, my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the student of the law from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples.” -Genesis 49: 8-10

Let it be the Divine Will that our leaders be like him.

Special thank you to Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann for translation

Rabbi Dov (Dubi) Haiyun is the leader of Kehilat Moriah in Haifa and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

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