As we prepare to finish reading Sefer Bereisheet (the Biblical Book of Genesis, first book of the Torah) it presents a good opportunity to look at a question presented by the book as a whole. If you were to read Sefer Bereisheet from the beginning, without prior knowledge of either the narrative or subsequent Jewish history, there’s a good chance that you would reach chapter 49 believing that the future leadership of the people of Israel would be drawn from the descendants of Joseph. It was Joseph, after all, whose dreams foretold his leadership over his brothers, and, it was Joseph who rose to the second highest rank in the greatest power of the day. It was Joseph, moreover, who resisted temptation in the episode of Potiphar’s wife (Gen.39:7-10) and who resisted the even greater temptation to take credit for interpreting Pharaoh’s dream (41:17).
Yet when we read Jacob’s blessings of his sons, we’re suddenly told that the leadership will rest in the descendants not of Joseph but of Judah:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him and the homage of peoples be his
(Gen.49:10, JPS translation). Up to this point, Joseph is the focus of the narrative. Judah is central to only two events: his treatment of Tamar (38:1-30) ending with the birth of Peretz and his rescue of his brother Benjamin from what appears to be an Egyptian ruler (but of course, unbeknownst to him is really his brother Joseph) (44:18-34).
But of course, we don’t approach the biblical text without a knowledge of subsequent Jewish history. We know that after a brief period of rule by Saul, a descendant of Benjamin, the kingship of Israel was given to David, of the tribe of Judah, who was anointed by the prophet Samuel at God’s command (1 Sam. 16:13). We know that it was David who finally captured Jerusalem, made it his capital and brought the Ark into the city (2 Sam.6:15-16). We know that David’s son Solomon built the Beit haMikdash (Holy Temple) that David had wanted to build but told by God not to (1 Kings 6:1; 2 Sam. 7:11-17).
We also know that after Solomon’s death, the previously united kingdom of Israel split in two, with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (and possibly Shimon) under the kingship of the house of David and the northern tribes ruled by Jeroboam ben Nevat (1 Kings 12:20), a descendant of Joseph. We know that both kingdoms sinned, both ignored multiple warnings by the prophets and both were ultimately exiled — Israel by Sennacarib, king of Assyria and Judah subsequently by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylonia. But while Judah returned from its Babylonian exile, rebuilt its destroyed Temple, and continued the historical heritage of the people of Israel, the northern tribes never returned from their Assyrian exile and for the most part were lost to history. Today’s Jews are descended from the Kingdom of Judah, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (except, of course, those descended from Levi).
Why did the kingdom led by Judah survive its exile while the kingdom led by Joseph did not? Did Judah have something that Joseph lacked? To answer this question, we need to look back at what the Torah tells us about Judah himself. He was far from perfect. His actions with respect to Tamar were hardly admirable; not only did he refuse to allow her to marry his son Shelah, thus condemning her to perpetual widowhood, but he patronized her believing she was a prostitute. Moreover, it was he who advised the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery (Gen.37:26-27).
What Judah had, it seems to me, is the ability to do teshuva. When Tamar confronted him with his actions, he immediately responded “She is more in the right than I” (Gen. 38:26). When he had the opportunity to protect Benjamin from enslavement as he had failed to protect Joseph, he pleaded for his brother’s freedom in one of the most eloquent speeches in Tanakh (44:18-34). In these episodes, we see that Judah was not perfect, but he had the prerequisites to teshuva — acknowledgement of sin and failure to repeat the offense when he had the opportunity to do so.
Judah’s ability to do teshuva was handed down to his descendants. King David, the progenitor of Judah’s royal house, was also imperfect. His imperfection can be seen most clearly in his seduction of Bathsheba and bringing about the death of her husband Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11:1-21). Yet when confronted by the Nathan the prophet, he responded by acknowledging: “I stand guilty before the Lord.” ( 12:13) Because the ability to do teshuva was coded into Judah’s DNA (so to speak), his descendants were able to repent and thus return from their exile. Joseph’s descendants, who lacked that ability, could not come back.
So why did the kingship fall to Judah? In the real world of statecraft, perfection is not a realistic aspiration. The Torah seems to be telling us not to expect a ruler to be sinless. The greatest kings of Israel, David and Solomon, sinned at various times. What we can expect of our leaders is the ability to recognize when they er, and to learn from their mistakes..