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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Reuven, Yehudah and Responsible Leadership

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on November 29, 2013)
Topics: Mikeitz

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In the story of Yosef and his brothers, starting in last week’s parasha, VaYeshev, and continuing through this week’s parasha, Miketz, and beyond, we are presented with two very distinct leadership personalities: Reuven and Yehudah. Yehudah is the lion, the courageous one, the leader and the progenitor of the Davidic kingly line; and Reuven is the one passed over, the firstborn, the one who should have been the leader, but who failed.

Why Reuven was passed over is not hard to understand. As Yaakov himself says in his deathbed blessing: “Impetuous as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then defiled you it; he went up to my couch.” (Breishit 49:4). Reuven’s character flaw was that he was impetuous, always rushing into things, not thinking them through, not considering their consequences. This was true in regards to lustful urges, but it was also true in regards to noble urges. “And Reuben heard it, and he saved him from their hands; and said, Let us not kill him.” (Breishit 37:21). He saw a need to save Yosef, and he rushed in, and did in fact save him from death. But he had no plan after that – he had not yet worked out a plan to “return him to his father” (Breishit 37:22). Since it was only a quick-fix, the possibility of the brothers killing him was still very present, and Yehudah had to come in with another plan: “And Yehudah said to his brothers, What profit is it 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. And his brothers listened.” This was a plan which at least got Yosef out of his brothers’ reach and protected him long-term. And where was Reuven? Nowhere to be found: “And Reuven returned to the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he tore his clothes.” Reuven had a quick-fix, and then could not think long term, could not even stay on the scene to try to control the situation. He jumped in, did what immediately came to mind, and then walked away – perhaps contemplating how to fix it, but never able to reenter the crisis situation with a workable plan.

Reuven’s role in this episode is further clarified in this week’s parasha. We find out, in a passing exchange when they are appearing before Yosef to purchase grain, that Reuven had first tried to directly appeal to the brothers to save Yosef’s life: “And Reuven answered them, saying, Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and you would not hear? therefore, behold, also his blood is required.” (Breishit 42:22). Of course they did not hear! What were the chances that a direct appeal would work against brothers who were dead-set on killing this “dreamer of dreams.” Reuven, of course, had not thought this through, and only when rebuffed, was he able to come back with an alternative they could accept – don’t kill him directly, throw him in the pit and let him die there.

This flaw of Reuven’s reasserts itself when the brothers attempt to convince Yaakov to send Binyamin with them. “And Reuven spoke to his father, saying, Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to you; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him to you again.” (Breishit 42:37). As Rashi succinctly puts it: “Yaakov did not accept Reuven’s words. He said, my eldest son is an idiot (shoteh). He tells me to slay his two sons. Are they perhaps his sons and not also mine?” (Rashi on Breishit 42:38). But such is Reuven’s way – he makes rash suggestions, without considering their absurdity, or how they would be received.

Yehudah, on the other hand, represents a more thoughtful, considered, and deliberate leadership. He is not the first to speak up, but when he speaks, people listen. He convinces the brothers to sell Yosef, and Yosef is truly saved from their hands. And when he speaks to his father, he waits until his words will be able to be heard: “And it came to pass, when they had eaten up the grain which they had brought out of Egypt, their father said to them, Go again, buy us a little food.” (Breishit 43:2) – “Yehudah said to them – wait for our elderly father, until there is no more bread in the house.” (Rashi, ibid.) A wise, thoughtful leadership knows when it is time to be silent, and when it is time to speak. And when Yehudah does speak, he makes no rash promises, but rather lets it be known that his word is his bond: “And Yehudah said to Yisrael his father, Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go; that we may live, and not die, both we, and you, and also our little ones. I will be surety for him; from my hand shall you require him; if I bring him not to you, and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever.” (Breishit 43:8-9). Such a promise from Reuven would have not been meaningful. It is only from Yehudah, who knows what it truly means to accept responsibility. As opposed to just jumping in and reacting, accepting responsibility means seriously thinking things through, considering the consequences long- and short-term of one’s actions, considering how one can best be heard and listened to, and – most relevant for the case of Binyamin – having patience, taking serious caution, and be prepared to do whatever it takes to see through on one’s commitment.   And, as we will find out next week, the trust that Yaakov puts in Yehudah is more than validated, when Yehudah steps forward and makes a passionate plea, one that puts his own life on the line to live up to his pledge, and one that can, and will hopefully, be heard.

This sense of responsibility was perhaps fully learned and internalized from his past, and only recorded, failure of leadership. In the case of Tamar, we find that Yehudah had first shirked his responsibility to give her his son Sheila as a husband, and compounded this wrong by another failure to assume responsibility – rather than being straight with her, he chose to put her off with a false promise. All of this comes to a head when she is brought before him because she has become “pregnant through fornication.” Without any hesitation, almost before the words are out of the people’s mouths, he imperiously declares: “Take her out and burn her.” When his own daughter-in-law, a person to whom he had a special connection, a person that he had wronged, is being accused of a crime, one that – even according to his understanding – he is partly to blame for, since he did not marry her off to his son, he does not bother considering the case, looking into the details, or taking his time, but he – Reuven-like, jumps up and spits out his sentence. Of course, the greatness of Yehudah is that this was a slip, not his true character, and that when confronted by Tamar, he admits his error, he accepts responsibility, and he learns what true leadership is about.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach!