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Vayeishev: Judah, Not Reuben

Genesis 37:1–40:23

When two figures in the Bible face a similar situation but respond to it differently, pay close attention: there's a lesson in the difference. A few weeks ago, I pointed this out in connection with Abraham and Lot. Another example occurs in the book of I Samuel, where King Saul and King David provide contrasting object lessons in the admitting of fault—in David's case, fault for having a man killed in order to take his wife. Still another occurs in this week's reading, where Reuben and Judah, sons of Jacob, present similarly parallel but morally divergent instances.

The young Joseph has alienated all eleven of his brothers through his incessant preening, his megalomaniacal dreams, and his flaunting of the privileged position he occupies in their father's affections. The brothers conspire to kill him, but two of their number undertake separately to thwart the plan. Reuben, the first-born of Jacob's wife Leah, convinces the others to throw Joseph into a waterless pit where he will surely die—in the hope of somehow sneaking him out later. But then Judah, Leah's fourth-born, comes along, sees Jacob in the pit, and challenges the very idea of killing him. "What profit is it," he says, "if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh." Convinced, they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt.

The difference here is one of character and leadership. Afraid to try changing his murderous brothers' minds, Reuben pretends to be in league with them, proposing a way to bring about Joseph's death without shedding his blood while secretly hoping to save his life. Judah puts the substance of his disagreement on the table, and by force of argument persuades the brothers to abandon their deadly plan and choose a lesser evil.

The lesson? Leadership comes not from acquiescing in bad assumptions and then trying to mitigate the consequences "from the inside," but from challenging those assumptions, taking a bold public stance, and winning people over to your side.

A few chapters later, after Joseph has found his place and risen from slave to, ultimately, Pharaoh's grand vizier, his brothers head down to Egypt to buy grain during the seven-year famine whose onset Joseph had predicted and been commissioned to provide for. There they encounter their now-mighty brother, who recognizes them but disguises himself to prevent their identifying him. Questioning them about their family, he insists they return forthwith to Canaan and fetch down their youngest brother Benjamin—kept behind by their father Jacob who, as they have explained, was anxious not to endanger the only remaining child from his beloved wife Rachel. The brothers come back to Canaan with the news. Jacob, devastated by the situation, nevertheless refuses to allow Benjamin out of his sight.

As before, Reuben is the first to step up. "Slay my two sons," he declares grandly to Jacob, "if I bring him not back to you" (43:3). We are suddenly reminded of Lot, Abraham's nephew, who invited the people of Sodom to have their way with his two daughters so long as they refrained from gang-raping the angels he was hosting in his home. Reuben has the boldness of the leader—but not the judgment. His plea falls on deaf ears, and hunger mounts.

Judah waits until the famine grows worse, and then makes his move. Reminding his father that they can't buy food in Egypt unless Benjamin accompanies them, he announces: "I will be surety for him; of my hand shall you require him. If I bring him not to you, and set him before you, then I shall have sinned to you forever" (43:9–10). This time, the plea works, and Jacob consents.

Here, then, is a second lesson: leadership means not just having the courage to draw attention to yourself; it means displaying judgment and a sense of timing—and putting yourself rather than others on the line.

Another, earlier story about Judah in this week's reading is crucial in filling out the overall message. After Joseph is sold into slavery, Judah goes south to live on his own for a while. He has three sons, of whom the eldest marries a local girl named Tamar. When that son sins and dies, Tamar marries the second son. But he dies as well, and, fearful of risking the life of his youngest son, Shelah, Judah sends Tamar back to her father's home to wait until Shelah grows up. When that happens, and when it becomes clear that her father-in-law still has no intention of letting her marry Shelah, Tamar plots her revenge.

Dressing up as a prostitute, Tamar seduces Judah by the roadside. Since he can't pay her on the spot, she takes some personal items as a deposit and then disappears into the night. Three months later, it becomes clear that Tamar is pregnant, and Judah wants to have her executed for harlotry. She, however, produces the tokens, and sends word to her father-in-law: "By the man to whom these belong, I am with child." Acknowledging his property, Judah immediately relents, declaring: "She is more righteous than I." Just like King David later on, Judah proves his mettle when confronted with his own failures.

Lesson: leadership means having the strength of character to admit when you're wrong. This strength, shining out to the people you hope to lead, gives them faith that you won't lead them astray.

What happens in the aftermath of these stories? Whereas Reuben's offspring go off into relative obscurity, Judah becomes the progenitor of Israel's greatest line of kings, beginning with David and Solomon. For, in him, the Bible has already delineated the central traits of worthy leadership—not blindly following others but showing others the way forward, exercising not only assertiveness but also judgment, and exhibiting the personal integrity to admit fault. Needed then; needed now.  

David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.



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