Parshat Vayechi: The Scepter of Kingship

“Yehuda: As for you, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies. Your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you. Yehuda is a lion cub. From the prey of my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda, nor the scribe from among his descendants, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples.” (Beresheit 49:8-11)

Our parasha discusses the final days of Yaakov. Before his death, Yaakov assembles his sons. He shares with each a vision, or prophesy, relating to the destiny of the son and his descendants. Our passages are a portion of the revelation Yaakov shared with his son, Yehuda.

Yaakov tells Yehuda that his descendants will possess the scepter of kingship. In other words, Yaakov announces that kingship will be awarded to the Shevet – the tribe – of Yehuda. This pronouncement is preceded by a number of praises that Yaakov bestows upon Yehuda. Don Yitzchak Abravanel suggests that the passages include four praises: First, Yehuda is acknowledged by his brothers. Second, Yehuda will overcome his enemies and all of his brothers – even those who do not share the same mother – will prostrate themselves to him. Third, Yehuda is compared to a lion cub and praised for not partaking in the prey of Yaakov’s son. Fourth, he is compared to a crouching lion that no person would dare disturb. What are the meanings of these praises?

Abravanel suggests that these praises are an introduction to Yaakov’s pronouncement of Yehuda’s leadership. Yaakov is providing an explanation for the selection of Yehuda and his descendants for the role of leadership within Bnai Yisrael. On this basis, he explains each of the praises:

First, Yehuda is acknowledged by his brothers. A leader must have the support of his followers. Among brothers, this support can be difficult to obtain. Brothers tend to see themselves as peers and are reluctant to acknowledge the leadership, or ascension, of one from among the group. Nonetheless, Yehuda did secure the admiration and acknowledgement of his brothers; they did regard him as their leader and chief.

Second, a leader must be able to battle successfully on behalf of his followers. If a leader is to secure the loyalty and commitment of his followers, he must convince them that he will defend their welfare — and even wage war — on their behalf. Yehuda’s descendants demonstrated this characteristic. They fearlessly and consistently fought the enemies of Bnai Yisrael.

Third, a leader must be just and righteous. He has tremendous influence and power. In itself, authority is neither good nor evil. Instead, good or evil results from the manner in which this authority is applied. If a leader is overly aggressive or violent, he will resort to force quickly and his authority will be a vehicle of destruction. If he is righteous and just, he will act with deliberation and his authority will be a source of good. Yehuda demonstrated this characteristic when he saved his brother Yosef from his other brothers. The brothers wished to kill Yosef. Yehuda persuaded them not to be solely guided by their anger towards Yosef, but to act with moderation. In other words, when Yosef was “prey” in the hands of Yehuda’s brothers, Yehuda refused to participate in their plan to kill Yosef and instead negotiated an alternative.

Fourth, a leader must be able to maintain a steady course. Like a lion, he must have the courage to face opposition and possess the confidence to follow though with his commitments and duties when confronted with challenges.[1]

Abravanel suggests that these four qualities are essential in any worthy leader. It is interesting that the four characteristics Abravanel identifies can be regrouped into two pairs of qualities: First, the leader requires the acknowledgment of his followers. However, he must have the courage to stay his course even when faced with opposition. Second, the leader must have the courage to confront his enemies. However, he must be just and righteous – not aggressive or violent.

Regrouped in this manner, these two pairs of characteristics seem to describe the fundamental conflict that every worthy leader must face: First, a leader must be acknowledged and supported by his followers. He cannot alienate those he leads. But a true leader must be willing to make unpopular choices. These choices may offend or estrange some of his following. It is possible that the decision the leader knows is right may jeopardize his support and his leadership. But, a leader who cannot make the unpopular choice is only an apparent leader. He is really a follower.

In order to achieve this balance between earning the loyalty of one’s followers and retaining the independence to truly lead, the leader must be sensitive and demonstrably devoted to his followers. Yet, the leader must be completely committed to his values. His cannot sacrifice his values in order to retain his leadership.

Second, a leader must have the courage to fight. He must be willing to defend the welfare of his followers. He must be willing to fight for his values and principles. But, because of his power and authority, he must be cautious: He must not resort to force too quickly. He cannot be tempted to respond to every slight or offense through the aggressive use of his authority. A leader may at times feel threatened and wronged. His power and authority can be used to respond. But, if he surrenders to this human tendency, he degrades himself, his cause, and needlessly harms others. A leader must be willing to fight as a last resort. But, his first choice must be to resolve conflicts through seeking peace and accommodation.

And keep the charge of the Hashem your G-d, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His ordinances, and His testimonies, according to that which is written in the law of Moshe, so that you may prosper in all that you do, and in whatever you turn yourself. So that Hashem the Lord may establish His word which He spoke concerning me, saying: If your children take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you, said He, a man on the throne of Israel. Moreover you know also what Yoav the son of Tzeruyah did unto me, what he did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, unto Avner the son of Ner and unto Amasa the son of Yeter, whom he slew, and shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins, and in his shoes that were on his feet. Do therefore according to your wisdom, and let not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace. (Melachim I 2:3-6)

The haftarah for our parasha describes King David’s final charge to his son, Shlomo. David knows that he is near death. His son, Shlomo, will succeed him on the throne of Bnai Yisrael. In these passages, David gives Shlomo two instructions: He tells Shlomo that he must be scrupulous in his observance of the Torah. He also instructs Shlomo to bring Yoav to justice. Yoav was David’s general. However, David reminds Shlomo that Yoav killed two opposing officers of Bnai Yisrael without justification. Shlomo must punish Yoav with death for his sin.

It is notable that these two instructions reflect the Abravanel’s comments. Abravanel observes that a worthy king must not compromise his values in order to win the affection and loyalty of his followers. David warns Shlomo that he must remain devoted and completely committed to the Torah. In order to achieve success, a king may feel that he must focus on winning the loyalty of people. But, David tells Shlomo that his success will be derived from another source: He must derive his values from the Torah and place these values before all other concerns – including any concerns regarding the reactions of his followers. Sometimes Shlomo may be forced to make unpopular decisions. But, David tells Shlomo that his success as king will not stem from his popularity among the people. Instead, Hashem will reward him with success in response to his loyalty to the Torah.

Abravanel tells us that a king must seek peace before confrontation. But, he cannot shrink from the fight that must be fought. He must have the courage and daring to resort even to violence when necessary. David tells Shlomo – a king who is renowned for the peace his nation enjoyed during his reign – that he cannot run from his duty to punish Yoav. Yoav is a man of power and influence. Shlomo is a new king. It will require tremendous valor to stand up against Yoav. But, Shlomo must act with courage and determination to correct the injustice Yoav created.

Abravanel’s comments and David’s instructions were directed to those who would assume the mantle of kingship. However, they are a meaningful admonition to anyone who assumes leadership in a nation or community.

[1] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, p. 433.