Reclaiming Jewish Leadership (Ideas #41)
Written by : Rabbi Francis Nataf, Added : 9/01/2006, Viewed : 1511

With the birth of Yakov’s twelve sons, we have the first serious contest of succession for Jewish leadership. Notwithstanding that both Reuven and Yosef are first-born sons, it is the fourth-born son, Yehudah, who by Parshat Vayigash, emerges as the uncontested leader.


Of the three, it is Yosef and not Yehudah who makes the boldest and most flamboyant moves in claiming the leadership. On one level, Yosef has a legitimate birth claim to the leadership. Since Rachel was meant to be Yakov’s first wife and Yosef was her first-born, he could well have built his case on being Yakov’s true first-born son. His claim seems further validated by his G-d-given looks and abilities. Of the twelve brothers, it is only Yosef who could have become viceroy in Egypt. The other brothers simply didn’t have the "right stuff." In spite of his having all of the qualities we would expect from a leader, however, Yosef is rejected by his brothers.


To understand Yosef’s rejection, we have to examine his political career more carefully. To begin with, we have to explain why Yosef insisted on telling his dreams to his brothers when he saw the negative response they always elicited. One answer is that Yosef wanted to alert his public to his aspirations. In typically political fashion, he must have felt that you can’t win the race if you don’t run. Yosef does what is normally necessary to attain leadership – he campaigns. Whereas other Jewish leaders might have been embarrassed by such dreams, Yosef saw nothing wrong with publicizing the signs that confirmed his intuitive aspirations.


The text (Bereshit 37:2) gives us an additional hint to Yosef’s early political behavior by mentioning a seemingly unimportant fact – that he would spend his time with the children of Bilhah and Zilpah. While Rashi gives a purely altruistic reason for this association, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch provides us with another possibility: Could it not be that Yosef preferred to be with the children of maidservants, because they viewed themselves as his social inferiors? When he was with them, there was no contest for leadership and he could pursue his calling. This, without engendering the bitterness of Leah’s children, who might have viewed their young brother’s ambitions with great suspicion.


To round out the picture, Rashi himself quotes midrashim telling us how Yosef would expend unusual effort on his personal grooming. It is well known that a Jewish king has a halachic obligation to cut his hair every day (Ta’anit 17a). At a young age, Yosef seems to have felt the need to publicly prepare for his destiny by literally grooming himself for royalty.


Yosef’s brothers and his father seem to view Yosef’s political antics with disdain. Interestingly, when the brothers act against Yosef, it is the dreams that they evoke and not the, potentially more damaging, tale-bearing (37:19-20). Apparently more than anything else, it is Yosef’s political behavior that eventually brings Yosef to exile, where among strangers, his politicking finds a more receptive response.


An allusion to the idea that Yosef took an un-Jewish approach to leadership may be found in an interesting phrase (42:7), wherein we are told that Yosef was "yitnacher" to his brothers. The simple meaning is that he did not reveal his identity. Yet more than one commentator (see for example Ibn Ezra) understands it to mean that Yosef pretended to be a "nocri’ or a non-Jew. Even before this, Yosef’s foreign tendencies had been formalized by his being given an Egyptian name, something unparalleled in the foreign residency of any other personage in the Torah.


It could thus be that the "right stuff" needed to be viceroy of Egypt was precisely what prevented Yosef from becoming the leader over his brothers and the Jewish people. In looking at classical Jewish leadership from Moshe to Shaul to David, one finds a trait common to them all that is missing in Yosef: All three of these great Jewish leaders did not seek out leadership – on the contrary they avoided it. Such a tendency is most concretely expressed by the Midrash Tanchuma on Shmuel I 17:22, explaining that the true leader is the one who, like Shaul, runs away from it. This is not from feelings of inadequacy, but from a realization of the ultimate distortion presented by human leadership.


In the Jewish worldview, the person best qualified to take on a task does it without fanfare, without drawing attention to himself. On the contrary, while prepared to lead, the Jewish leader does not want to be thought of as a leader, a title that has intrinsically problematic associations. This is the approach that is personified by Yehudah, who in the story of Tamar subjects himself to public disgrace in order to do what needs to be done. In marked contrast to Yosef, who seems to be very concerned with what others think of him, Yehudah shows little interest in his public image. Picking up on this, the Targum Yonathan (49:8) explicitly makes the connection between Yehudah being elected as the Jewish leader and his (public) admission of guilt with Tamar (see also Sota 10b).


In summary, G-d gave us two types of leaders – a Yosef and a Yehudah. While the Jewish people need both, we look to Yehudah for our ideal.