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Parshat Vayechi


Hertzberg-Rabbi-David

December 1862 was a terrible month for Abraham Lincoln. General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg had just defeated his principal army, the Army of the Potomac. As a result, the Radical Republican senators felt that now was the time to force Lincoln to push the war more vigorously. More importantly, they wanted to replace Secretary of State Seward who was viewed as the power behind Lincoln.

Based on information, sent to them by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon B. Chase, they felt that Seward controlled the President, prevented the cabinet from helping the President and, “hindered Lincoln’s intention to make the war a crusade for emancipation” (Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Schuster New York, 2005, p.486).

In letters to the senators, Chase implied, among other things, that had the members of the cabinet, especially himself, been consulted by Lincoln the country would not be in the bad situation it currently found itself in. Based on Chase’s information the senators felt Seward had to be replaced in order for the Union to win the war. To press the issue, the senators selected a Committee of Nine to visit Lincoln and demand Seward’s dismissal. The Committee arrived on December 18.

While Lincoln dreaded the meeting, he heard them out. At the meeting’s conclusion, despite being depressed, Lincoln realized he had to work this problem out himself and do it in a creative, non-confrontational manner. He had to demonstrate that his cabinet was both consulted and united. Additionally, he had to expose Chase’s duplicity and prove Seward’s indispensability. Not one to feel sorry for himself, Lincoln got to work.

Lincoln invited all the members of the cabinet other than Seward to a meeting at the White House on December 19. Unbeknownst to them he also invited the Committee of Nine. Among the cabinet members present was Salmon Chase. When Chase saw the joint session he panicked, “since tales of the malfunctioning cabinet had originated largely with his own statements to the senators” (p.491). In front of the senators, Lincoln asked his cabinet members whether major issues had been discussed with them. All of them concurred – even Chase.

Additionally, Chase was forced to publicly concede, that Seward did not object to the Emancipation Proclamation and was not soft on slavery. Rather, in actuality, “Seward had suggested amendments that substantially strengthened it” (p.492). Forced to admit, in front of the senators that he had been disingenuous, Chase felt compelled to resign. Lincoln accepted his resignation and placed it in a drawer. Lincoln let Chase know that for now his job was safe, but if he ever showed disloyalty again (which he eventually did) he would be dismissed from office.

Lincoln, by rebounding from his depression and creatively tackling the crisis he faced, achieved firm control of his cabinet and silenced the attacks by the Radical Republicans. “For Lincoln, the most serious governmental crisis of his presidency had ended in victory. He had treated the senators with dignity and respect and, in the process, had protected the integrity and autonomy of his cabinet” (p.494).

In this week’s parshah Yaakov blessed Yehudah and assigned him the leadership of Bnei Yisrael. As part of the blessing the Torah states (49:9): “Judah is a lion cubhe crouches and lies down like a lion” Many works quote a beautiful insight in the name of the first Rebbe of Ger, the Chiddushei HaRim. The Torah’s choice of words captures the essence of Yehudah’s character. Although at times he is forced to crouch down and deal with setbacks, he ultimately responds like a lion and gets back up with renewed vigor and strength. As leaders, Yehudah and his descendants had to deal with local failures and disappointments. However, as leaders they also knew that they had to move on and exploit the opportunities such setbacks presented. People of lesser character would have surrendered to circumstance.

We can discern a second leadership character trait of Yehudah when we contrast him with Reuven. When Yaakov blessed Reuven, the Torah described (49:4) Reuven as being “hasty like water.” In other words, Reuven often acted impulsively. While impulsivity is called for at times (e.g. jumping into save a life) it is a bad character trait for a leader who must think things through. Yehudah, although capable of acting when necessary, always acted deliberately and after careful evaluation. Whether it was by patiently judging Tamar, waiting out Yaakov during the famine, or approaching Yosef, Yehudah always had a plan.

Rabbeinu Bachaya learns an additional important leadership lesson from the letters of the blessing. Within the text of Yehudah’s blessing every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is used except the letter zayin. When viewed as a word zayin means weapons. In light of this, Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that the Torah is teaching us a critical lesson. Yehudah’s leadership will ultimately succeed due to G-d’s providence and not because of Yehudah’s military prowess. Although as leaders, the children of Yehudah will at times need to resort to military force, the absence of the letter zayin is a permanent reminder that G-d is the source of all successes and failures.

Based upon Rabbeinu Bachaya’s explanation, Rav Avraham Korman in his work HaParsha L’doroteha offers an interesting addendum. Although, leaders must be prepared to use force, the Torah, by avoiding using the letter zayin, is instructing leaders that if they want their leadership to be truly effective, they should rely on approaches based on persuasion and inspiration. Force should only be used as a last resort.

Abraham Lincoln intuitively understood these important leadership lessons. All leaders should heed them as well. Leaders must learn to bounce back, plan perfectly and influence ingeniously.

Rabbi David Hertzberg is the Principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Questions and comments can be e-mailed to him at Mdrabbi@aol.com.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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