MAKING THE PERFECT MISTAKE
When Jacob blesses all of his children before his death, he personalizes each statement according to the character of each individual son.
When Jacob blesses all of his children before his death, he personalizes each statement according to the character of each individual son. According to the Abarbanel, a leading philosopher and scholar of Spanish Jewry at the time of the expulsion, Jacob was trying to determine the greatest potential for each son and, in particular, which of them should lead the family and nation in the future. Based on the narrative throughout G enesis, the most obvious choice and the most qualified for the job would be Joseph. It is therefore surprising to find that Judah is selected to be the leader of the nation and the progenitor of royalty. Does Judah have greater potential to lead the nation than Joseph?
Not only has Jacob watched Joseph successfully rule over Egypt for the past seventeen years, Jacob also remembers Joseph's dreams which described almost prophetically Joseph's future role as leader over his entire family. Of course, Joseph exhibited certain characteristics which would hamper his ability to lead by incorrigibly inciting his brothers to jealousy. But other attributes far outshine that blemish on his résumé. Joseph's completely forgiving his brothers for having sold him into slavery should have neutralized the brothers' jealousy. Moreover, Joseph had lived in a foreign country, without any Jewish family at all, for over twenty years, yet his sterling character was not tarnished and his passion to return to the land of Israel had motivated his every decision. It seems Joseph had proved his ability to lead the family, so why did Jacob overlook Joseph when determining who should be the future leader of the Jewish people?
Furthermore, what attribute did Jacob see in Judah that demonstrated Judah's potential in leading his brothers? After all, it was Reuben who initially suggested sparing Joseph's life at the time of the sale. Moreover, it was Judah who exercised poor judgment in his episode with Tamar several Torah portions ago. Nevertheless, Jacob blesses Judah and testifies, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him and the homage of his peoples be his" (Genesis 49:10). The question is, therefore, two-fold: Why was Joseph not chosen to lead the nation after having proven his abilities so magnificently, and what did Jacob see in Judah that showed Judah's potential to successfully lead the nation?
Although Joseph ruled Egypt perfectly, his perfection in ruling Egypt was his weakness. Joseph was too good. Having never made a mistake, he never needed nor had the opportunity to admit a fault. Every successful leader must recognize the capacity to err. To his credit, Joseph rose in stature until he was second only to Pharaoh. Joseph is even described as "a father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler over the entire land of Egypt" (ibid. 45:8). However, an ideal ruler is someone who, upon making a mistake, admits his error and tries to correct the problem. Joseph never demonstrated this ability to err and admit his mistake. But Judah did. In the episode with Tamar, the moment Judah understood all the events of the story, he immediately confessed: "She is more righteous than I am" (ibid. 38:26). To accept responsibility for a mistake defines the capacity to lead.
In fact, many years later this character trait determined who the king of Israel should be. Based on this attribute, the kingship fell from one and was retained by another. Saul, the first king of Israel, failed to obey Hashem's command to obliterate the entire nation of Amalek by sparing the life, albeit temporarily, of their king. When the prophet Samuel confronted Saul with this blatant disregard of a divine command, Saul initially challenged: "But I did obey Hashem" (I Samuel 15:20). Only subsequently, after Samuel's rebuke, did Saul accept responsibility for his error. Because Saul showed an inability to admit his guilt, Hashem retracted the kingship form Saul. However, when David, a descendant of Judah, was confronted by the prophet Nathan about his mistake with Uriah and Bathsheba, without hesitation David lamented, "I stand before Hashem guilty" (II Samuel 12:13).
Greatness lies not in being perfect, but in the capacity to recognize not being perfect. Judah and David share this admirable trait and are, therefore, fitting to be king. Only from a person with such sensitivity and humility does Jacob hope, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah."
Micah Gimpel, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a senior at Yeshiva University in New York.
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