In Parashat Miketz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and is appointed to implement Egypt’s anti-famine plan, which brings him into contact with his estranged brothers.
Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes, points out that while the main story of the weekly portion is Joseph being sold into slavery, his meteoric rise to power and his reconciliation with his family, there are also several subplots running through the narrative. One of those subplots centers on leadership: who among the 12 brothers will assume command of the family after Jacob?
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While the main story lines of the weekly portions last week, this week and next week is Joseph being sold slavery, his meteoric rise to power and his reconciliation with his family, there are also several subplots running through the narrative, one of which is: who among the 12 brothers will assume family leadership after Jacob? A crucial scene in this subplot begins when Jacob refuses to let Benjamin return to Egypt with his brothers.
Reuven, the eldest brother declares, “If anything happens to Benjamin you can kill my two sons!” This rash statement has no impact on Jacob, and reinforces what we already know about Reuven, who has already shown himself incapable twice – first by sleeping with his father’s concubine, and then failing to protect Joseph. Despite the natural advantage of being first-born, he simply doesn’t have what it takes.
Similarly, the next eldest brothers, Shimon and Levi, had years earlier disqualified themselves by dispatching the entire city of Shechem to defend their sister Dina’s honor. This honor killing did just the opposite – bringing dishonor to their family.
Last week in Parshat Vayeshev, the fourth-born Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery rather than killing him, a plan to which they readily agree. Later, having unwittingly impregnated his daughter-in-law Tamar, he shows himself capable of reflection and growth. “You are in the right”, he says, admitting his lack of responsibility and the justice of her ruse. This week, in the dramatic moment cited above, Judah faces the naked truth and tells it to his father: the brothers must take Benjamin with them or die. He promises to be Benjamin’s guarantor, showing his maturity and accountability, and Jacob accedes.
At this point, it has been clearly established that Judah is the leader of the family still in Canaan, but how will he confront Joseph, a far more powerful and talented man than himself? At the beginning of the next week’s Torah Portion, Vayigash, Judah shows himself to be up to this challenge by causing Joseph to reveal his identity, leading to the family’s reconciliation.
When the main plot has been resolved and the brothers are reconciled, we see Judah’s dominant family leadership again. Who goes ahead to Goshen to prepare for the arrival of the family? None other than their leader, Judah, who clearly had the trust of all the others, including Joseph.
Those to whom Genesis was first read, with this important subplot seamlessly woven into the main narrative, were most likely members of the tribe of Judah, which close to three millennia ago had competed for dominance in ancient Israel with the tribes Efraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph. Judah’s emergence in the story as leader of the family must have resonated with that audience. It continues to resonate for us today, by conveying to us relevant lessons about qualities of leadership:
1) Judah had a natural ability to persuade others to adopt his ideas 2) He learned from mistakes, undergoing a process of ethical growth and change, 3) He held himself accountable and was willing to face consequences 4) He had the courage to confront powerful adversaries with the truth 5) He won and held the trust of the whole family.
Thousands of years later, we still seem to be in need, perhaps more than ever, of this guide to choosing our leaders.
Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.
Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.