Vayechi: The makings of a leader

Vayechi: The makings of a leader

This week’s Torah and Haftarah readings describe the final days of two of ancient Israel’s leaders, Jacob and David. David spends his final days giving specific instructions to his son Solomon, detailing for Solomon how to solidify the throne after David’s death and, specifically, who to punish and who to reward for their past actions against David. David also emphasizes for Solomon that if Solomon follows God’s laws and commandments, then the throne will never depart from the House of David. Alas, we the reader know that Solomon does not follow his father’s advice, and the united kingdom that he inherits from his father does not outlast Solomon’s reign as king.

Jacob, on the other hand, takes the opportunity of his impending death to impart final words of wisdom to his children. He tells them that he will reveal what will happen to them in the future, but his words seem much more like a rebuke for past actions, or a reflection of a later historical reality. Either way, Jacob is surely nervous about the future, unsure of how his children will react to life in Egypt, and unclear as to the future of the nation whose foundation he has built.

Both of these ancient Israelite leaders understand that the path forward for a new generation is anything but clear. The ideas, programs, and motivations that worked for one generation may prove ineffective for another generation. It is not hard to read into the words of our Torah reading and haftarah the intense worry of both of these fathers and leaders: “What will become of my children? Will they make good decisions after I am gone?” Although these two parents worried about nations as well as families, we can all certainly relate to the parental worries expressed by these characters.

As leaders, both Jacob and David know that it is essential that their family (and nation) have an effective leader. That is why they both worry so much about making sure to pick the right person for the job. David details for Solomon how to solidify Solomon’s place on the throne, partially to give him a shove in the right direction, and partially to ensure that no one else picks up the reigns of leadership following a wrong move by Solomon.

And which of Jacob’s twelve sons should lead the family after his death? The first choice would, of course, have been Reuben, because he is the oldest. But Jacob explicitly takes the leadership role away from him, telling him that because he is “unstable as water, you shall excel no longer (Genesis 49:4)”. Reuben failed his father one too many times. In Jacob’s eyes, Reuben is no longer fit for leadership.

What about Joseph? Wouldn’t he be the next logical choice? Jacob surely loves Joseph, but he does not pick Joseph to lead the family. Perhaps he knew something about Joseph’s personality, or about his relationship to power, that made Jacob uneasy about turning the family leadership over to him.

In any event, the son that Jacob appoints as the next leader of the family is none other than Judah. About him, Jacob says “You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise; Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes; Your father’s sons shall bow low to you (Genesis 49:8)”. Beautiful praise, indeed, for Judah. But why did Jacob pick him? What did Judah do to warrant being the next leader of the family?

Early in the Joseph story, Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery, rather than kill him. Selling their brother into slavery is certainly better than killing him, but couldn’t Judah have said at that moment in the story, “We need to release Joseph. Who are we to kidnap him?” At that moment, though, Judah was not ready for such a righteous act.

Later on in the Joseph saga (Genesis 38), we read the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, the woman whom he wronged and who eventually is impregnated by her father-in-law (it’s a long story…). Suffice it to say that Judah wronged Tamar, but Tamar, instead of publicly embarrassing Judah, allows him to keep his dignity and honor. At the end of the story, when Judah realizes what Tamar had done, he says “She is more in the right than I am (Genesis 38:26)”.

And in last week’s portion, Judah has his finest moment, when he approaches Joseph and convinces him that the brothers were truly repentant for their past deeds and that they understood the importance of their brother Benjamin and their father Jacob. All of these actions present us with the picture of a person who is certainly not perfect, who has made his share of mistakes, but who has grown, emotionally and spiritually.

As good as it might be to appoint a leader who has never fallen down, who has never made a mistake, perhaps it is even better to appoint a leader who knows what it means to fail, who understands the power of human frailty, and who has learned the hard way how to find compassion for all people.

Judah is the right leader for the next generation because of the emotional and spiritual distance he has traveled as a human being, and because of the character he has built on his journey. Each one of us, on our own journey, experiencing our own flaws and mistakes, can only hope that we have the opportunity like Judah to strengthen our families, and pass on the values and lessons we learned from those who came before us. In that way, perhaps our lessons can be passed on to those who come after us as well.