The scepter will not depart from Yehudah or legislation from his descendants. Nations will submit to him until the final tranquility comes. (Sefer Bresheit 49:13)
1. Yaakov’s blessing of Yosef and Yehudah
Parshat Vayeche describes the end of Yaakov’s life and the events immediately after his passing. Before his death Yaakov spoke with his children. In his final address, he bestowed blessings, delivered rebukes, and foretold the future of Bnai Yisrael. Yaakov’s final message was delivered to his children in two stages. The first stage was initiated by Yosef. Yosef learned that his father was ill and he came to him with his sons to visit his father. Yaakov blessed Yosef’s sons – Ephraim and Menashe. Also, he transferred to Yosef the rights of the firstborn son. The firstborn son is entitled to a double portion of his father’s material estate. Yaakov gave to Yosef a double portion in the future homeland of Bnai Yisrael – the Land of Israel.
The second stage of the message was initiated by Yaakov. He summoned his sons and addressed them. In this final address to his children, he bestowed upon each either a blessing or rebuke and he revealed some of the events that would unfold in the future. In this second stage, Yaakov bestowed the authority of kingship upon Yehudah. The future kings of Bnai Yisrael will come from Shevet Yehudah – the Tribe of Yehudah. Kings may arise from other tribes. However, their rule will be temporary. Kingship will always return to Yehudah’s descendants. Ultimately, Moshiach – the Messiah—will arise from among the descendents of Yehudah.
Yaakov’s decision to transfer the rights of the firstborn from Reuven – the true firstborn son – to Yosef demonstrates Yaakov’s intense love and great regard for Yosef. Yosef had rescued Egypt, Bnai Yisrael, and the entire region from famine. He had proven himself to be both politically adept and also a capable administrator. Why did Yaakov not bestow upon Yosef the legacy of kingship? Why was this authority instead given to Yehudah? This question is even more troubling if Yosef and Yehudah are compared.
And Yehudah saw her and assumed she was a prostitute because she covered her face. He turned aside from the road and he said, “Hello there. May I come to you?” He did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. (Sefer Beresheit 38:15-16)
And she seized him by his garment saying “Lay with me.” And he abandoned his garment in her hand, fled, and went outside. (Sefer Bresheit 39:12)
2. A comparative study of Yosef’s and Yehudah’s moral strength
Earlier in its narrative the Torah described the sale of Yosef into servitude by his brothers. Yosef was purchased and brought to Egypt. There, he was sold as a slave to Potifar – one of Paroh’s ministers. Yosef quickly demonstrated his administrative abilities, dedication, and honesty. Potifar entrusted Yosef with the management of all of his affairs.
The Torah explains that Potifar’s wife developed an obsessive desire to seduce Yosef. He rebuffed her repeated attempts to initiate a liaison. Ultimately, she attempted to force herself upon Yosef. He fled rather than sin against Hashem and his master, Potifar.
In the midst of its description of Yosef’s terrible trails, the Torah inserts an account of an incident involving Yehudah. Yehudah took a wife from among the women of Cana’an. She had three children with Yehudah. He selected as a wife for his oldest son a woman from among people of Cana’an. He name was Tamar. This son died childless and Yehudah directed his next son to take Tamar as a wife. The children would be treated as the offspring of the departed brother. The son took Tamar as his wife but he too died without children.
Yehudah was reluctant to give Tamar to his youngest son as a wife and instructed her to return to her father’s household until this youngest son is older and more fit to take Tamar as a wife. She followed Yehudah’s instructions but with time she became skeptical of Yehudah’s intentions. She learned that Yehudah would be coming to the area. She disguised herself and placed herself in Yehudah’s likely path. Yehudah mistook her for a prostitute, solicited her, and was intimate with her.
The Torah inserts its account of this incident immediately after its description of the brother’s sale of Yosef and before its description of Yosef’s refusal to succumb to Potifar’s wife’s seductions. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra suggests that the insertion is intended to contrast Yehudah to Yosef. Yosef resisted the seductions of Potifar’s wife. Yehudah initiated a liaison with a prostitute whom he soon-after discovered was his own daughter-in-law. Yosef exercised absolute control over his carnal desires. Yehudah could not resist these desires. ,
According to Ibn Ezra, the Torah’s intention is to demonstrate that Yosef was morally superior to Yehudah. Why, then, did Yaakov bestow kingship upon Yehudah and not Yosef?
And they said to him, “Will you have kingship over us? Will you rule over us?” And they hated him more because of his dreams and his words. (Sefer Beresheit 37:8)
3. The brothers’ rejection of Yosef’s aspirations
One of the incidents that led to the brothers’ resentment of Yosef was his communication to them of two dreams. Both dreams clearly seemed to be visions of the brothers paying homage to Yosef. Yosef described these dreams to the brothers. After hearing his account of the first dream, the brothers chided. They asked him whether he really believed that he was destined to be their ruler. However, in describing their rebuke of Yosef, the Torah attributes to them two questions which they rhetorically posed to Yosef. They asked, “Will you have kingship over us? Will you rule over us?”
Ibn Ezra explains that the brothers posed two distinct questions. They asked Yosef whether he believed that he would be accepted by the brothers as their king – as melech. Alternatively, did he envision himself imposing his rule upon them – as a moshel. In other words, through these rhetorical questions the brothers related to Yosef that they would never appoint him as their melech – a leader appointed by his followers. Neither would they even allow him become their moshel – a leader who imposes his rule upon others.
And they were seated before him with the oldest in his appropriate place and the youngest in his appropriate place. And they expressed their amazement to one another. (Sefer Beresheit 43:33)
4. Yosef’s desire to win the brother’s acceptance
Ultimately, Yosef became Paroh’s vizier. The terrible famine that Yosef predicted befell the region. Yosef provided life-saving provisions to the population from the stores amassed under his direction during the bountiful years preceding the famine. Yosef’s brothers appeared before him asking to purchase provisions for their families in Cana’an. Their appearance initiated a series of interactions between Yosef and his brothers. Without revealing his true identity to his brothers, Yosef tested them and evaluated them. He searched their souls in order to discover whether, in the intervening years since their betrayal, their attitudes had changed.
However, there was a moment during which Yosef provided to the brothers the opportunity to discover his true identity. He invited the brothers to a banquet and in the course of the evening he provided various hints to his identity and acted toward them with perfect fraternity. Why did Yosef provide the brothers with this opportunity to discover his identity but not actually announce to them that he was indeed Yosef?
The brothers had come to Egypt to seek provisions. Yosef treated them harshly and forced them to submit to his will. He had imposed himself upon them as a moshel. However, Yosef did not wish to be their moshel – one who imposes his rule. He wished to be his brothers’ melech –to be recognized and appointed by them as their leader. In order to achieve this, he attempted to affect a reconciliation of sorts. He invited the brothers to an elaborate banquet. He treated them as brothers. He even provided hints to his true identity. He hoped that the brothers would recognize that their lost brother Yosef was their host. He longed for them to embrace him and accept him. He yearned for them to appoint him as leader rather than to impose his authority over them. However, this outcome was not achieved.
And the brothers of Yosef saw that their father had died. And they said: Perhaps Yosef will seek vengeance against us. And he will repay us for all of the evil we caused him. (Sefer Beresheit 50:15)
5. The brothers’ lingering distrust of Yosef
In fact, Yosef was never successful in winning his brothers’ acceptance. With the death of Yaakov, the brothers became concerned with Yosef’s attitude toward them. They wondered whether he had really forgiven them. Perhaps, Yosef had never pardoned their treachery and his apparent kindness had been motivated by his love for their father. The brothers feared that without Yaakov’s presence, Yosef might finally repay the evil done to him.
The brothers decided to deceive Yosef. They claimed that their father, Yaakov, had left a final message. In these last words, Yaakov asked Yosef to forgive his brothers. The brothers came to Yosef and delivered the message they had devised.
This is a tragic incident. It reveals that Yosef was never fully accepted by the brothers. They felt compelled to accept his leadership. However, they never embraced him as their leader.
Yehudah, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be upon the back of your enemies. Your father’s sons will bow to you. (Sefer Beresheit 49:8)
6. Yehudah’s emergence as the brothers’ selected leader
Yosef failed to win his brothers’ acceptance. To whom did they look for leadership? Yaakov in his blessing to Yehudah identified him as the one the brothers accepted as their melech. Yosef may have been more righteous. However, Yehudah was the one the brothers looked toward for leadership. He was the one who persuaded them to sell Yosef and not take his life. He stepped forward to assure Yaakov that he would protect Binyamin. He is the brother who stood before Yosef and pleaded with him to spare Binyamin. True, he lacked Yosef’s righteousness. However, his humanity earned the loyalty of his brothers.
1. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 38:1.
2. According to Ibn Ezra, Yehudah is responsible for multiple failings. Ibn Ezra maintains that just as Yitzchak and Yaakov were not permitted to marry wives from the nations of Cana’an, so too Yaakov’s sons were forbidden to marry these women (Sefer Beresheit 46:10). Yehudah ignored this restriction by selecting for his own wife a woman from among the nations of Cana’an. His liaison with Tamar was a further failing.
3. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:8.