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Parshat Vayechi: Rising to Leadership

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s “Unlocking the Torah Text – Bereishit,” co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Rising to Leadership


A hidden struggle courses beneath the surface of the Yosef story as, unknowingly, each of Yaakov’s sons strives for a prize of overwhelming responsibility and inestimable value.

By the time the narrative reaches its conclusion a fundamental question is answered: Who, from among the sons of Yaakov, will rise to leadership within the Jewish nation?

Three possible candidates emerge from a crowded field, each a complex figure with strong positive credentials.

1. Reuven – firstborn to Yaakov; the leadership role is Reuven’s birthright and, thus, his to lose. He, alone among the brothers, attempts to save Yosef and return him to his father’s home.

2. Yosef – a born leader; Yosef rises to the top of any environment into which he is placed (see Vayeishev 1). He becomes a powerful figure who is able to manipulate circumstances and the behavior of others in order to achieve his goals.

3. Yehuda – powerfully persuasive; Yehuda convinces his brothers to sell Yosef into slavery, rather than allow him to perish in the pit. Yehuda rises to protect his youngest brother, Binyamin, when Binyamin is threatened by Yosef with imprisonment.

When Yaakov blesses his sons from his deathbed in Parshat Vayechi, the patriarch clearly indicates God’s verdict. Yehuda is to be the progenitor of leadership within the people of Israel: “The scepter shall not pass from Yehuda nor legislation from among his descendents until Shilo (the Mashiach) arrives and his will be a gathering of nations.”


By what criteria is Yehuda selected for leadership over his brothers?

Are there any specific characteristics or qualities that disqualify Reuven and Yosef from this leadership role?



At first glance, Reuven seems to merit the leadership role which, by birthright, is naturally his.

When the brothers openly plot to murder Yosef, Reuven alone rises to his younger brother’s defense. He convinces the others to throw Yosef into a pit rather than kill him directly. The Torah clearly testifies that Reuven intended to later return and “rescue him [Yosef] from their hands, to return him to his father.”

Why, then, is Reuven passed over in favor of Yehuda?

A clue emerges from the message that Yaakov, on his deathbed, delivers to Reuven in Parshat Vayechi: “Unstable as water, you shall not lead…”

A careful review of Reuven’s behavior at critical moments reveals that while Yaakov’s firstborn often has the best of intentions, he “rushes like water,” reacting impetuously, without thought for the ramifications of his actions. Three episodes clearly underscore this point.

1. After the death of Rachel, the Torah states that Reuven has relations with Bilha, his father’s concubine (and the mother of two of Yaakov’s children).

The rabbis debate the actual details of this event.

Some suggest that Reuven felt that Bilha was permitted to him because he viewed her only as his father’s concubine.

The Talmud, however, maintains that Reuven did not actually sleep with Bilha at all. Instead, the rabbis say, Reuven acted to protect the honor of his mother, Leah. After Rachel died, Yaakov established his primary residence in the tent of Bilha, who had been Rachel’s maidservant. Reuven interpreted this act as an affront to his mother. Without his father’s knowledge, he took matters in his own hands and moved his father’s bed to his mother, Leah’s, tent. While Reuven’s motives were understandable, his actions were precipitous and impulsive, earning him the reprimand from his father’s deathbed, in which Yaakov rebukes him for this incident: “Unstable as water, you shall not lead, for you mounted your father’s bed…”

2. At the scene of Yosef’s sale into slavery Reuven does attempt to save his brother. His efforts, however, fall painfully short. Instead of openly challenging his brothers’ horrific plan, Yaakov’s oldest son convinces his siblings that their own design can be more easily achieved by throwing Yosef into a pit. Reuven, however, apparently gives no thought to the dangers potentially lurking in the darkness of that pit, which, according to rabbinic tradition, was actually filled with “snakes and scorpions.”

Reuven then mysteriously disappears from the scene, only to return after Yosef’s sale is complete. Whatever the cause for Reuven’s departure (the rabbis offer numerous suggestions as to why he left), nothing should have been more important than remaining and ensuring his brother’s safety.

The text, in brilliant yet indirect fashion, hints at the incompleteness of Reuven’s attempts to save Yosef by openly stating that Reuven acts “in order to save him [Yosef], to return him to his father.”

The Torah does not generally comment on the intentions of characters in the narrative, but rather, allows people’s actions to speak for them. In this case, however, Reuven’s actions are so inconclusive that we would have no way of knowing that he planned to save his brother. The text must, therefore, openly testify as to Reuven’s good intentions.

3. Years later, the brothers return to Canaan after their journey to Egypt to procure food in the face of famine. Yosef, who is by now the Egyptian viceroy, has imprisoned Shimon and declared that the brothers may not return to Egypt unless they bring their youngest brother, Binyamin, with them.

Reuven attempts to convince his reluctant father to allow Binyamin to make the journey to Egypt by offering the following bargain: “You may slay my two sons if I fail to bring him [Binyamin] back to you. Put him in my care and I will return him to you.”

Yaakov, understandably, remains adamant in his refusal. What grandfather, after all, would trust the judgment of a son who, even in an attempt to do what is right, impulsively offers the lives of his own children as collateral for his success or failure?

While a leader certainly must be able to act decisively at a moment’s notice, he cannot afford to be reckless or blind to the consequences of his actions. Reuven, while well-meaning, is simply too impulsive to inherit the critical mantle of leadership.


Yosef seems to possess all of the traits necessary for successful leadership. Personally attractive, naturally adept, politically savvy, he rises to the top of each and every environment into which he is placed, often against great odds. By the end of the narrative Yosef is viceroy in Egypt, second-in-command only to Pharaoh and the architect of his family’s survival and descent to Egypt.

Yosef also possesses a deep, abiding faith in God and in Divine Providence. (See Vayeishev 1 for a fuller discussion of Yosef’s leadership skills and personal belief system.)

Why then is Yosef not chosen for leadership within the Jewish nation?

The answer lies, perhaps, in a fundamental flaw in the nature of Yosef’s leadership. Yosef always seems to lead from “without.” There is no group to which he fully belongs: he remains throughout his life the ultimate outsider. Yosef never gains the trust of his brothers, who suspect his intentions until the end. In Egypt, he is regarded with suspicion and is considered a foreigner even after his rise to power (See Vayigash 1, Approaches c). Yosef certainly leads but his leadership is that of a puppeteer, who remains at a distance, manipulating events and people to achieve his ends.

The true Jewish leader emerges from “within” the nation and remains connected always to the people he leads.

Moshe’s journey to prominence begins when he “goes out to his brethren to observe their burdens.” David begins life as a common shepherd and remains, even after ascending to the monarchy, a poet whose songs resonate to the chords of universal personal struggle.

In contrast, Yosef, the ultimate outsider, cannot be chosen for permanent leadership of the Jewish nation.


From the outset, Yehuda seems an unlikely candidate for lasting leadership.

He is fully implicated by the text in the sale of Yosef and is, in fact, the one who suggests the sale. Immediately after that tragic episode, Yehuda fails to fulfill his responsibilities to his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and only corrects his errors when she openly confronts him.

Closer study, however, reveals two powerful currents coursing through Yehuda’s life and development, as he overcomes his own shortcomings and avoids the mistakes of his other brothers.

1. Yehuda remains one with his brothers. Unlike Yosef, Yehuda rises from within. A persuasive leader at the time of Yosef’s sale into slavery, Yehuda separates temporarily from his brothers only to return to their company. His leadership is cemented when he convinces his father to allow Binyamin’s journey to Egypt and when he rises to argue with Yosef on Binyamin’s behalf.

Immediately before Yehuda’s defense of Binyamin, the text subtly foreshadows Yehuda’s rise to prominence from among his brothers by singling him out with the phrase “and Yehuda and his brothers arrived to Joseph’s house.”

Finally, Yaakov, on his deathbed, acknowledges Yehuda’s journey to popular leadership: “Yehuda – you, your brothers shall acknowledge.”

2. Yehuda learns to take full responsibility for his actions. The incident with Tamar marks the beginning of Yehuda’s journey towards personal responsibility. Confronted with Tamar’s claim that he is the father of her unborn child, Yehuda openly states, “She [Tamar] is right; it [the child] is from me.”

Years later, Yehuda’s successful attempt to convince his father to allow Binyamin to travel to Egypt stands in stark contrast to Reuven’s earlier, clumsy effort (see Approaches A, above). Yehuda declares: “Anochi e’ervenu, I will personally guarantee him; of my own hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I would have sinned to you for all time.”

Finally, Yehuda emerges as the prototype for the process of tshuva (personal repentance and change) when he rises to fight for Binyamin’s safe return. The very individual who suggested the sale of Yosef now stands before Yosef arguing on behalf of their youngest brother!

There are no coincidences in Jewish history. Yehuda’s journey has brought him to this point, recorded at the beginning of Parshat Vayigash. Faced with the same circumstances which previously led to failure, Yehuda courageously rises to leadership as he addresses the past and accepts full responsibility for his brother’s fate.

Yaakov’s deathbed blessing to Yehuda, within which he assigns leadership to Yehuda and his descendents, is specific as to the criteria by which God’s choice is made:

“Yehuda – you your brothers shall acknowledge…your father’s sons will bow down to you.” Yehuda, you have risen from within. You serve as a model to your brothers and have earned, through their acclaim, the mantle of leadership.

“A lion cub is Yehuda; from the prey, my son, you have elevated yourself.” You have moved past your earlier tragic failures, elevating yourself through the full acceptance of personal responsibility for your actions and deeds.

“The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda nor legislation from among his descendents until Shiloh (the Mashiach) arrives and his will be a gathering of nations.” Leadership is yours and will continue, across the ages, among your descendants. Your wrenching personal journey has earned you this honor and responsibility.

Points to Ponder

During his journey towards personal responsibility, Yehuda makes powerful use of one of the most picturesque words in the Hebrew language: “Anochi e’ervenu,” he says, as he convinces his father to allow Binyamin to travel to Egypt, “I will personally guarantee him.”

And, again, as he confronts Yosef concerning the safety of Binyamin, Yehuda declares: “Ki avdecha arav et hana’ar, for your servant took responsibility for the youth.”

The root word arev, which lies at the heart of Yehuda’s statements, literally means mixture and enjoys a wide variety of applications throughout Jewish thought:

  1. Erev, evening. Evening is a mixture of day and night.
  2. Ta’arovet, a physical mixture. This term is often used in the halachic delineation of permitted and prohibited mixtures of food.
  3. Eruv, a legal concept with numerous applications. For example: an eruv chatzeirot allows members of a community to carry on Shabbat from a private to a public area and within a public area. Contrary to popular opinion, the term does not refer to the physical enclosure built around the community (technically that enclosure is known as a mechitza) but to a portion of food which is set aside as communally owned. The eruv thus symbolically joins the community together.
  4. Arov, the plague of a mixture of wild beasts. This is one of the plagues that afflicted Egypt.
  5. Arev, a guarantor. This is the most important meaning, for it encompasses the obligation to be responsible for another. When Yehuda “guarantees” Binyamin’s safety, he declares his connection to his brother. “We are bound together,” he effectively argues, “ with a tie that cannot be broken.”

Similarly, the rabbinic proclamation “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh,”usually translated to mean “All within Israel are responsible one for the other,” actually means much more. On a deeper level, the phrase indicates that we are inextricably bound to one another, connected heart to heart.

Yehuda introduces the concept of areivut into Jewish history. He rises to leadership when he truly grasps the ties that bind the family of Israel, ties which join us to each other to this day.