Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vayechi—Making The Call II

In continuing and expanding on last week’s theme of leadership, as last week’s parsha illustrated how two paradigmatic Jewish leaders dealt with emergency situations, this week the brachos that Yaakov gives actually start with Yaakov castigating his three oldest sons for what he saw as consequences of leadership failures.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes an extensive treatment on this theme regarding Reuven and his lost “potential”, not only as his father saw it, but more poignantly, from another incident, in Vayeshev, where Reuven saves Yosef from the rest of the brothers. At least, initially; 37:21-22 indicates that while he did throw him in the pit to forestall what seemed like imminent bloodshed [and got the requisite spiritual credit], posuk 22 also indicates where Reuven failed to “seal the deal”: he planned to “return him [Yosef] to his father], but as we see later in 29-30, while he’s otherwise occupied, Yehuda and the other brothers sell Yosef off, and Reuven’s first reaction is “va-ani ana ani va” [loosely translated: “now where do I go?”], which leads him to help in the ensuing cover-up. How much Yaakov knew about Reuven’s involvement is arguable; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin discussed Yaakov’s possible musings about his—and his sons’-- responsibility for Yosef’s disappearance, so it might follow that Yaakov referred only to Reuven’s initial misstep of removing his father’s couch from Bilhah’s tent as his evidence of Reuven’s lost potential, and a harbinger of his later failures. [As I mentioned last week, Reuven tries—in a very awkward manner—to guarantee Binyamin’s safety when the brothers are trying to convince Yaakov to send him to Egypt [see 42:37, 38]; Reuven’s idea—“my two sons will die”—causes Yaakov to think [pace Rashi on 38] “My firstborn is a fool [“shoteh”]. At this point there is no question in Yaakov’s mind that Reuven has no leadership ability, and it’s no accident—as we shall soon see--that it is Yehuda who steps into the vacuum with his guarantee, as we saw last week.]

So now we have an example of expected leadership lost: Reuven, the first-born, was not going to achieve the greatness for which he had been ostensibly destined for, even if only because of a perceived birthright. So, the mantle falls to Shimon and Levi.

Or does it? On the face of it, Yaakov is still sore at them for the massacre in Shechem; the posuk reads “be-apam hargu ish”—that they acted out of anger, and “birtzonam akru shor”—they took spoils willingly and with malice aforethought [contrast that with the later military operations in Esther: “uv-biza lo shalchu et yadam”—no profiting from bloodshed. Not for nothing did Yaakov complain in Vayishlach 34:30 that they had caused him a major PR problem: “achartem osi le’havisheni be-yoshvei ha-aretz”.] Yet Yaakov recognized that in their zeal to act—and, at least in the case of Shechem, there was ample justification—there was a contrast to Reuven’s tendencies to be both impetuous and hesitant. Therefore, as Rashi on 49:7 indicates, Yaakov’s apparent meted consequence of splitting them up and spreading them out [“achalkem”/”va-aphitzem”] was actually a device to channel their zeal into more productive leadership positions: Shimon became soldiers and teachers, while Levi became…Levites. The catch was: they never could be “top dogs”—Shimon was “condemned” to pedagogy and military, and Levi had to stay firmly on the religion side of religion and state, with terrible consequences when the Hasmoneans crossed that line.

From there we come to Yehuda. As we saw last week, he claimed his mantle by steeping into the breach at the eleventh hour with his guarantee to Yaakov for Binyomin’s, and then his following through on that guarantee at great personal cost. Ironically, Yehuda’s first “call” as a leader is rather dubious: he suggests that the brothers sell Yosef into slavery and profit, rather than kill him [37:26-27]. Yet even in this there is an element that hints at his effectiveness: the brothers listen to him and carry out his proposal, in contrast to Reuven’s “holding” action of throwing Yosef in the pit. As has been discussed at length in Rashi and midrashim, however, what ultimately gets Yehuda to his position is his experiences following the sale, particularly losing his two oldest sons and the Tamar incident, where he publicly confesses that he was in the wrong. Yehuda, unlike Reuven, has learned from his mistakes—and uses his undeniable leadership talent to correct those mistakes, as is finally revealed when he steps up for Binyamin. Additionally, as will be echoed when similar things happen to his Davidic descendants [David included], Yehuda also experienced the loss of his position, not to mention being force to take responsibility for the actions of his constituents, as evidenced by 38:1, “Va-yered Yehuda me-es echav”: as Rashi points out, the brothers blamed him for Yaakov’s pain: “if you would have told us to return Yosef to Yaakov we would have listened to you.”

The ultimate lesson here is not only regarding decisions made by leaders, however. It may be extended to anyone forced to make a “judgment call”, which may just be everyone, all the time. In a certain sense, the current global zeitgeist [a disingenuous one, to be sure, but still truistic, to a point] is, as the Crunch ads say, “No Judgments”. Ceratinly one should remember Hillel in Avos 2:4 not to judge anyone until you’ve been in the “same place”, or as Bartenura explains, until you’ve overcome the same obstacle that someone else apparently has not.

However, as Rabbi Mark Wildes once said in a pre-Rosh Hashana talk, a judgment means that the action being judged actually means something; in other words, if one is professing to never be judgmental, one is actually in a certain sense being ipso facto judgmental, by declaring nothing to be important. [Or, to paraphrase Rush [the band, not the EIB], if you choose not to judge, you still have made a judgment]. The question in this case might be: is the judgment call you [or me, or anyone] make in the spirit of “Reuven”, impetuous and not necessarily thought through; “Shimon/Levi”, proactive but sometimes destructive [Shechem may have been justifiable, but the initial idea to kill Yosef was theirs too]; or “Yehuda”, deliberate with the benefit of experience and mistakes? Finally, and ultimately, is one going to be ready to take responsibility for one’s own actions and judgments—even if and especially when they are influential regarding others’?

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