What does it mean to be a nation of lions?
This image, mentioned frequently these days, has its origins in Jacob’s final words to his children on his deathbed, just as they are about to transform from a family to a people. To properly appreciate the profound meaning it can have for our time and our challenges, you need to understand the drama of this moment at the end of Jacob’s “short and troubled” life.
All of Jacob’s troubles, from his fights with Esav to his children’s fight with Joseph, can be seen as stemming from the answers he and his father had given to one question- who is to be chosen? This is not only the question that determined his own biography. It is the organizing question of the entire book of Genesis, the answers to which were the source of endless bloodshed and strife from the dawn of humankind.
The dilemma is a difficult one. Progress demands selection. Selection requires rejection. Rejection creates animosity, jealousy, and violence. How can the cycle be broken? Jacob’s novel answer is that all are chosen, but not all paths are blessed, and not all are fit to lead. This solution provides a way to maintain unity by respecting each tribe’s unique contribution, while still choosing one guiding ethos over all others to lead and define the people.
This message is particularly cogent today, in response to those who present the vengeful acts of Shimon and Levi as a model worthy of emulation. Jacob thought otherwise. While their passionate sense of brotherhood is admirable, it is also dangerous. The very same passions that animated violence on behalf of their sister, Dinah, ultimately bring about violence against their own brother, Joseph. Therefore, Jacob insists that they be “divided amongst Jacob and spread out in Israel”. They can spread their passion and provide inspiration, but they cannot be the leaders, defining policy. “They are brothers in the trait of anger and vengeance, and this is not appropriate for the one who has power, for many will be destroyed by this,” the Malbim explains. The violent methods that Shimon and Levi employ, according to Jacob, are ‘stolen vessels’, ‘klei hamas (!!)’, taken from the hands of Esav, who is told that he will live by the sword. They are not fit for the children of Jacob, whose power is in his voice, who prayed not to need to kill just as he prayed not to be killed.
But then what will be of the hands of Jacob? Who is fit to offer political, real-life leadership for this people?
Passing over his first three natural choices, Reuven, Shimon and Levi, Jacob comes to Judah. Judah has made mistakes no less significant than those of his older brothers. He had a problematic relationship with Tamar, as Reuven did with Bilha. And he had a problematic role in the sale of Joseph, as Shimon and Levi did. So why is he chosen to lead? The Kli Yakar explains: “Because you, Judah, admitted the truth in the story of Tamar. Measure for measure, your brothers will accede to your leadership without shame, just as you were not ashamed to admit the truth.” Both in the story of Tamar, and in the story of Joseph, what distinguished Judah was his ability to take responsibility, to overcome his ego and to fully own his mistakes. His own capacity to withdraw is what will enable his brothers to withdraw and to cede the leadership to him.
This may not be the way we’re used to thinking about the power of a leader, and it is certainly not the way we’re used to thinking of the power of a lion. But, surprisingly, this is the trait that is most stressed by Jacob. Jacob focuses not on the lion’s ability to attack, not on its might or its bloodlust, its power in defeating its opponents or tearing them apart, but on its power to retract. “You arose from the hunt, my son, you kneel and rest like a lion, and like a lioness, who can rouse you?” A lesser animal always feels threatened. It takes the self-confident majesty of a lion to be able to attack as needed, and then to stop, withdraw, and rest.
A weak leader always feels threatened, and always needs to attack and to avenge in order to defend his fragile honor. It takes the self-confident majesty of a leader like Judah to admit mistakes, to withdraw, and to know when to initiate, and when to step back.
This is the leadership fit for a nation of lions.