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(This year the author, Steve Plaut, was the Chatan Torah in his Haifa synagogue.  The following is the Dvar Torah he gave at the kiddush that followed:)

I would like to speak to you briefly about the subject of leadership in the Book of Genesis and throughout the entire Bible. More specifically I would like to address the leadership role of Judah.

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What exactly was it that qualified Judah for leadership? Indeed, Judah’s leadership was not just in the generation of the biological offspring of Jacob but was an ongoing leadership that would last for many generations. Judah is described in Jacob’s departing blessing thus: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet until the coming of Shiloh.” The last part of the sentence is considered to be an anticipation of the Messianic Era. Judah of course is the biological forefather of King David and so the Kings of Judaea and the future messiah all descend from Judah.

But what is so special about Judah? What was it exactly that qualified Judah as leader of his generation and even of the generations that follow?

Probably the most common answers to the question focus on the role that Judah played in the drama of the sons of Jacob and their adventures and challenges in Egypt, where – unbeknown to them – Joseph is the planning czar in control of the entire country. In particular, the role of Judah with regard to Benjamin is critical When Jacob hesitates in allowing Benjamin to leave home, Judah offers himself to his father Jacob as a guarantor for Benjamin. And then after Benjamin is arrested by Joseph’s agents for the trumped up charges regarding theft of a chalice, Judah proposes that he himself be allowed to be imprisoned in place of Benjamin.

I would like to suggest that the real reason behind Judah’s assuming the leadership role is not those incidents but rather a completely unrelated matter. It is to be found in a very different Biblical story, one of the weirdest of all stories in the Bible: the story of Judah and Tamar. As you recall, Tamar is the widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, who is reluctant to allow his eldest surviving son to marry Tamar. Instead, in order to establish a family, Tamar disguises herself and induces Judah himself to have relations with her, becoming pregnant with twins. The very presence of this story in Genesis is bizarre, and even more bizarre is its position in the Book – smack dab in the middle of all of the drama of the selling of Joseph into slavery, the subsequent rise of Joseph as Governor of Egypt, and the journeys of his brothers into Egypt to buy food.

Why was it so important to include the Tamar story at this point in the Torah? In part, it was to establish the earliest genealogical record for King David, the line from Judah through Peretz to the future king. But there is a no less important reason. At the end of the story of Judah, when his behavior has been “outed” by Tamar, Judah steps up and concedes that she is correct. I was in the wrong, says Judah, I regret my behavior.

That’s such a big deal? Yes, that’s such a big deal. Judah is capable of conceding that he was wrong, that he had made mistakes, that he feels regrets. And THAT is precisely what qualifies him and his descendents for their future leadership role, holding the scepter and the ruler’s staff.

To understand how amazing and unusual such behavior is, I would like to invite you to participate with me in a brief thought experiment. Try to think of OTHER figures in the Bible who similarly are willing to step up and admit that they had been in the wrong. You will quickly realize how rare this is and how difficult it is to point to other examples.

Indeed, it is highly instructive to point to the many leadership figures in the Bible who FAILED this “Judah Test,” who were unwilling to step forward and admit that they had been in the wrong. Many such people were in fact the most important leaders of the entire Jewish people. I wish to review their failures not as some sort of attempt on my part to mock or belittle them but rather to emphasize how unusual such behavior is, how strongly it runs psychologically against the grain of human nature.

Let us begin with Moses himself, the most modest of all men. In Deuteronomy, in his long speech before the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land, he explains that he will not be going along with them. It was because of YOU, Moses berates the Israelites bitterly, that the Lord became angry with me and will not allow me to enter. Now our sages debate what exactly it was that constituted Moses’ transgression, but they all agree that Moses transgressed. Moses however is incapable of coming to terms with this idea. So Moses himself fails the Judah Test.

What about his brother, Aaron the High Priest? He also fails it. As Moses descends from Mt. Sinai and sees Aaron with the Golden Calf, Moses screams Gevalt! (evidently they spoke Yiddish among themselves), brother what did you do? Well, says Aaron, the nation was running amok, going postal, they threatened me, I was afraid for my life, they killed Hur, so I did what I did. No admission of guilt. No contrition. No confession of error. Aaron gets an F in the Judah Test.

Joseph was the traditional challenger of and competitor with Judah for the leadership role, the “crown” of his brothers, both in the generation of the sons of Jacob and also in later generations. The kings of the northern kingdom were from the tribe of Efraim, descendents from Joseph, and there is the future “anointed son of Joseph” predating the “anointed of King David” in the messianic era. When Joseph is at last reunited with his father Jacob, there is no apology for never having sent a fax or SMS text message all those years letting Jacob know that he was alright, no apology for suspecting Jacob of complicity in his sale to the Ishmaelites, no admission of error. Joseph also fails the Judah Test.

Then there are the parallel twin stories involving Abraham and Isaac, in which each misrepresents his wife as his sister, leading to messy and dangerous political developments. All ends well, of course, But one might have expected an apology and admission of guilt, if not towards Pharaoh then at least towards your wife, sir!

There is in the Torah a special sacrifice in the Temple performed by the Nasi or tribal prince/president who has erred. There is also a well-known saying that happy is the generation whose Nasi errs, meaning the generation that has a Nasi willing to admit that he has erred. Such a Nasi is a great asset politically. The only problem is the lack of records of princes or kings admitting to error and offering the Nasi-Error sacrifice, and may be forgiven for being skeptical about how often such people actually emerged in leadership roles.

There is one glaring counter-example to this sorry track record, a leader who DID in fact admit freely that he had been in the wrong and who expressed regret and penance. That is King David, in the matter regarding Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite, and the Prophet Natan. But upon contemplation, this is not really a SECOND case in the Bible of a leader satisfying the Judah test. Rather it is the original case itself. The “Judahness” of Judah manifests itself in David, who is himself the scepter of Judah and ruler’s staff. This is not a separate incident of willingness to admit error but a continuation of the original incident involving Judah himself!

There is one other place where we find numerous cases of people admitting to error and confessing mistakes. That is in the Talmud, which is filled with instances of sages stating a position, listening to counterarguments, and then conceding they had been in error. These of course are generally not political leaders but educational and spiritual leaders. Nevertheless, I find some of the charm of Talmudic discourse to be precisely this feature, the willingness of the players to concede error and admit mistakes. It occurs to me that part of our willingness to accept upon ourselves the halakhic authority of these sages so many generations later may be in part because these are people capable of admitting error and expressing regret.

May it be the fortune of the people of Israel that we be graced with leaders who are capable of admitting that they have been in the wrong and of confessing to error!

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I disagree about Joseph failing the Judah test. Remember his Brothers wanted to murder him initially. In the end Joseph's forgiveness for their treachery saved the entire tribe. Joseph was a dreamer and had prophetic abilities; the timing to reveal himself to those who changed from murderous intentions to selling him into slavery was not yet. The grief the brothers felt was more attuned for the pain that they caused their aged father Jacob; not so much for what they had done to Joseph. However, Judah did step up and avert the murder of his younger brother opting instead to sell him in to bondage to a passing caravan. The ultimate Irony is that, In not too many generations after this event many descendants of Israelites would suffer the same fate as Joseph in Bondage in a foreign land!

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